Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The first rule: don't ask

This is just so wrong:

A salon owner, Sarah Desrosiers, was looking for a junior stylist. She received dozens of applications, including one from Bushra Noah, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab. She did not want to hire a woman who wouldn't show her own hair at work, because she believes that a stylist's hair needs to be shown to "provide clients with a showcase of different looks", and she asked Bushra whether she would be willing to take her hijab off while at work. Bushra said no, and didn't get the job. Bushra sued.

In the end Sarah did not hire anyone for the position.

Bushra sued for £15,000, later increased to £34,000 to compensate for all the hate mail she received, although I am pretty sure Sarah didn't write it all. The court ruled that Bushra's claim of direct discrimination failed, but her claim for indirect discrimination had succeeded, and ordered Sarah to pay £4,000 for "injury to feelings".

Mind you, I think Bushra definitely has a point. Except in very specific cases (models, for example), I am very wary of businesses using employees as decoration, to the point where I at least might actively boycott a business for that. The idea of stylists' own hair serving as a necessary inspiration for a customer seems quite silly to me, and opens a rather nasty can of worms, such as the question of whether a bald person can and should be legitimately discriminated against while applying for hairdressing positions, or fired from a hairdressing job. IMO people do not specifically seek out hairdressers wearing hairstyles they themselves would like, and people seem to visit hairdressers of the opposite sex without complaining much about the lack of inspiration provided by their hairstyles.

Of course it might also be that after 15 years in the field Sarah knows something about it that I don't. Nevertheless, if there were a real discrimination case - if Bushra's resume were the best, and Sarah hired a less-qualified person because of the hijab issue, I would be all for Bushra.

The disturbing thing about the case is not that a hijab-wearing woman wants to work as a hairdresser, it's that people get convicted for discrimination on such flimsy evidence, and that Sarah, basically, got convicted only for trying to negotiate the issue.

Bushra was not the best applicant, the hijab was not her only problem, and nobody actually got hired for the position. She only knew that hijab was an issue at all because Sarah asked.

I don't know enough about British law to figure out whether the court or the lawmakers were to blame, but if you are a society trying to protect a minority group from discrimination, punishing prospective employers for trying negotiate potential minority-related issues with them is a somewhat counterproductive idea.

What Sarah and other salon owners learned from this experience is that either you don't invite Muslims to the interviews at all, which might be a fairly easy thing to do if you get dozens of resumes for one position, or you do invite them, but weed out everyone who remotely looks like they might want to wear a hijab, without ever actually asking about it. Yep, a great step for equality. Backwards.

Bushra "has given up her ambitions to become a hairdresser and is studying travel and tourism at Hammersmith and West London College while working part-time in a shop". No shit, after becoming Britain's hairdressing industry's most famous least desirable job applicant whose hurt feelings cost £4000. Muslims might be a protected group, but people who sue everything in sight sure aren't.

I wonder how much of the hate mail that Bushra got was from Muslims working or aspiring to work in the hairdressing industry in UK. "Way to go, sister! Now we can't get any interviews at all!"

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