Starwood loses court case over hair style

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December 14, 2013 – (hospitalitybusinessnews.com) Starwood has been ordered to pay a terminated employee due to a firing over her hair style.

Plaintiff Vazquez is of African-American and Hispanic descent. Vazquez was hired by Starwood in 2000 or 2001 to work at Paradise Stream as a housekeeper. Paradise Stream is a couples-only resort located in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. Vazquez was employed by Starwood until May 28, 2007. During the term of her employment, Vazquez was provided with a copy of Starwood’s Associate Handbook. Vazquez acknowledged receipt of the Associate Handbook on or about June 17, 2003.

Among other policies and provisions, the Associate Handbook contains a provision governing the appearance of Starwood Associates. The appearance policy states:

All Starwood Associates are expected to take pride and care in their personal appearance, dress and grooming. This is essential for presenting a professional image at all times. In this connection, Starwood has established a uniform and professional standard of appearance for all Associates in all Starwood locations. . . .

Hair should be conservative in style (and in color) and should not fall on the face or obstruct eye to eye contact. Hair may be required to be pulled back or tied back (or in the case of some food and beverage positions, a hair net or hat may be required). Hats are not permitted unless they are part of an issued uniform. . . .

Associates failing to adhere to proper Starwood standards with respect to appearance are subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.

The appearance policy with regard to hair is written generally because it is a judgment call made by individual managers to determine what they deem conservative as opposed to otherwise. Managers at Paradise Stream worked with the human resources department and other managers to determine what standards would be applied to govern the appearance policy.

According to Jackie Manning (“Manning”), the assistant executive housekeeper at Paradise Stream, the appearance policy as applied to hair permits an employee to have individual braids, but cornrows that show the scalp are unacceptable. The perception at Paradise Stream is that a design of cornrows that shows an excessive amount of scalp is not allowed under the appearance policy and is unprofessional. Similarly, while Jenell Butz (“Butz”) was a manager in different departments at Paradise Stream, her interpretation of the appearance policy was that if she could see scalp in excess in a row going back, the hairstyle was not conservative. Thus, if there were braids in the hair but the scalp was not visible, that hairstyle was acceptable.

Vazquez was subject to discipline for violations of the appearance policy on several occasions based on the manner with which she wore her hair. For instance, in 2004, Vazquez was disciplined for wearing her hair in twists that showed the scalp. Additionally, on June 19, 2006, Vazquez received a disciplinary notice for violation of company procedure because she had braids in her hair. As a result, Vazquez was sent home and prohibited from returning to work until she spoke with an employee in the human resources department.

On other occasions when Vazquez wore braids in her hair to work she was not disciplined. On September 27, 2006 and October 3, 2006, Vazquez went to work with braids in her hair and was instructed to wear a hat. She was, however, permitted to work on both days. There were also several other occasions where Vazquez was given a hat to wear because her employer needed her to stay and work.

Vazquez was terminated from her employment with Starwood on May 28, 2007. That day, Vazquez arrived for work with braids in her hair. In the afternoon, Vazquez was instructed by Manning to come to the office with Steve Almquist (“Almquist”). Almquist informed Vazquez that he was going to write her up and send her home because of her hair. Almquist also stated that Vazquez would have to remove the braids from her hair or she would be terminated. When Vazquez indicated that she would not remove the braids, she was terminated. The Notice of Termination of Employment of Carmelita Vazquez indicates that she was discharged for a rule violation. The explanation of termination states:

“Carmelita will not take out the braids in her hair.” (Notice of Termination, Ex. 9.) Other individuals employed at Paradise Stream wore braids and/or cornrows in their hair during and after Vazquez’s employment with Starwood. Vazquez’s daughter, Aesther Vazquez, worked at Paradise Stream for five years, and on both occasions she wore cornrows she was told they had to be taken off. Aesther Vazquez took off the cornrows and put a garbage bag on her hair so her hair would not be loose. She was not sent home from work.

April Goode (“Goode”), a former dining room server at Paradise Stream, was permitted to wear her hair in cornrows or braids throughout the course of her pregnancy without being disciplined. However, on June 29, 2007, one month after Vazquez was terminated from employment, Goode received a disciplinary notice for wearing an inappropriate hairstyle. Goode was sent home and told to return for her next shift with an appropriate hairstyle. The next day, Goode returned to work with an improper hairstyle. She again received a disciplinary notice and was sent home. Goode indicated that on both occasions her hair was in braids. On July 2, 2007, Goode arrived to work wearing a scarf on her head. This was considered casual attire not permitted by the appearance policy.

As a result, Goode’s employment was terminated. In 2002, Butz, who at the time was in a non-management position as a dining room server, and another dining room employee wore their hair in cornrows to work. Both Butz and the co-worker are Caucasian. Both employees were counseled about their hairstyles,
and they removed the cornrows.

Amanda Weir (“Weir”), a Caucasian employee, was permitted to wear a hairstyle which showed her scalp. Vazquez characterized Weir’s hair as being in cornrows. Butz described Weir’s hairstyle as a french braid, which is a braid close up against the hair. Manning stated that Weir’s hair was in individual braids with a ponytail with her scalp showing. Both Butz and Manning testified that Weir’s hairstyle did not violate the appearance policy and that they would not have counseled Weir for that hairstyle.

At trial, Vazquez established a prima facie case of discrimination. Vazquez is a member of a protected class, she was qualified to retain her position at Paradise Stream, and she suffered adverse employment action. Moreover, Vazquez was terminated under circumstances giving rise to the inference that she was terminated because of her membership in a protected class. That is, as stated by Starwood’s managers, the appearance policy permitted employees to wear their hair in braids so long as excessive scalp was not visible, but it prohibited employees from having cornrows that showed an excessive amount of scalp. The testimony at trial, in connection with the Notice of Termination prepared by Starwood, (Notice of Termination, Ex. 9), confirm that Vazquez was terminated since she would “not take out the braids in her hair.” The Notice does not indicate that an excessive amount of Vazquez’s scalp was visible. Because Starwood’s appearance policy permitted employees to wear braids and other non-African American/Hispanic employees did not suffer adverse employment action when wearing braids, yet Vazquez was discharged for wearing such a hairstyle, she adequately demonstrated that her termination occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference
of unlawful discrimination.

SEE ENTIRE COURT RULING

 

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