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The price of going grey

The price of going grey
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First Published: Sun, Jul 10 2011. 08 59 PM IST

Age bar: Some employers expect women to look younger at work.
Age bar: Some employers expect women to look younger at work.
Updated: Sun, Jul 10 2011. 08 59 PM IST
Sandra Rawline started her career in the real estate industry as a receptionist, and she worked her way up to become an escrow officer and branch manager at Capital Title of Texas. But she believes that the years it took to get that experience did her in.
And the grey hair.
Rawline says her boss told her to dye her grey hair because the office was moving from Katy to the Galleria area and wanted a more upscale image for its new digs. She says she was also instructed to wear “younger, fancy suits” and lots of fancy jewellery. Rawline, 52, whose shoulder-length grey hair also has natural silver streaks, says the boss ordered the dye job on a Thursday afternoon in August 2009—even offering to perform the colouring.
Rawline, who has been greying since her early 20s and likes her natural hair colour, says she refused. And by the following Tuesday, she was told her services were no longer necessary. She was replaced by a woman 10 years younger.
“This is who I am,” says Rawline, who recently filed an age discrimination and retaliation lawsuit in a federal court in Houston, US.
Age bar: Some employers expect women to look younger at work.
Capital Title of Texas said in a statement that it didn’t terminate Rawline because of her age or appearance, but because one of its customers no longer wanted to do business with her.
“Since the customer refused to work with her any longer, there would be no job left for her,” according to the statement, which did not detail reasons for the customer’s preference. The company added that three employees who are 64 years old still work with the customer.
Company CEO Bill Shaddock said the allegations were “completely baseless and preposterous”.
“I’d hire a 150-year-old individual if they were worthy,” said Shaddock, adding that he has grey hair too.
Rawline says Capital Title did not tell her of any performance complaints before or on the day she was terminated. Nor did it contest her application for unemployment benefits, according to Rawline.
“I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed or humiliated for growing older,” says Robert Dowdy, the Houston lawyer representing Rawline.
Real estate clients want to work with professionals based on their experience and ability to explain what’s going on, Dowdy says, not on whether they dye their hair.
Eliot Tucker, an employment lawyer with Tucker, Vaughan, Gardner and Barnes in Houston, says employers have wide latitude to regulate the appearance of their employees, such as requiring uniforms, combed hair and tucked-in shirt tails.
But they can’t take what’s known as an adverse employment action such as firing, demoting or moving employees to undesirable shifts based on age, sex, race, religion, national origin or disability, he says.
Tucker, who represents employers and employees and isn’t involved in Rawline’s case, says that if her account is accurate, it seems the motivation for her termination was her failure to alter her appearance to look younger—and that the supervisor might not have made the demand of a worker who was 25 or even 40.
Grooming issues in the workplace can get complicated.
Katherine Butler, an employment lawyer with Butler and Harris in Houston, recalls a gender discrimination case involving a bartender in a casino who was fired for not wearing make-up. An appeals court upheld the firing in 2006, ruling that the make-up rule didn’t pose an unequal burden on female employees.
But Butler, who represents employees, says Rawline’s case sounds like an example of the stereotyping that goes on at many workplaces. Many employers generally expect women to look good, she says, while they don’t have the same expectations of men.
“It’s pretty clear age is their concern,” says Butler, who understands the underlying issue on a personal level. She dyes her own grey hair regularly but stopped for a couple of years and let it go natural. She tired of people asking if she would like a senior discount.
Rawline says her choice of clothes—typically a businesslike blouse and trousers or a suit—had never come up since she joined Capital Title in 2003. Neither had her grey hair.
“I was really working hard for them,” says Rawline, who supervised four employees and received “outstanding employee” awards in 2004 and 2005. In 2006, Rawline was promoted from escrow officer to branch manager, which included a $8,000 (Rs 3.54 lakh) raise that brought her salary to $48,000 a year.
Her job was to close real estate transactions, which requires coordination among buyers, sellers, lenders, insurance companies and real estate agents. Her main account was a builder that generated 35-40 closings a month.
Rawline hasn’t found a similar position since her termination two years ago. Today, she’s working in customer service and earning about $30,000 a year.
©2011/the New York Time
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First Published: Sun, Jul 10 2011. 08 59 PM IST