One of my 5 jobs this summer (don’t worry they don’t all happen at once) is working summer relief at a large doctor’s office. It’s a great place to work. There are five GPs, each with their own assistant and one receptionist. Everyone is friendly and the prevailing sense of humour is dry and sarcastic. These are my kind of people.
I will be working closely with Dr. W while his assistant is away. At the end of my first day of training with Dr. W’s regular assistant, KN, we went in for a chat with Dr. W. He’s something of a character. After a few exchanges of witty banter between KN and Dr. W, Dr. W turns to me and in a funny accent says something akin to, “You know you can’t wear that here, eh Babuska?” Now, don’t misunderstand, (it’s very difficult to convey the subtle nuances of a dry sense of humour though the medium) Dr. W wasn’t really suggesting that I not be allowed to wear my headscarf to work. He was just yanking my proverbial chain. But this brings up good topic for discussion: What if he were serious?
I have had my share of encounters. Mostly when I first decided to cover all the time and I was working the same job that I had been working before I started to cover. I was working in the accounting department of a medium-sized corporation. We were a rowdy bunch of well fed bookkeepers and accountants. (Really, we don’t all look at our shoes and scuttle out of eye sight the second we see someone else. We just let you think that’s what we do. That way we can get some work done if you don’t think we’re fun to hang out with.) As with many jobs we did have one person who always knew what was going on, or at least wanted to know, X. X was great to go to if you wanted to know what was going on in the company, official or otherwise. X also felt entitled to know why I covered my hair.
X was not a manager, nor a supervisor of mine. When I first decided to cover, I went off to VV boutique (I’ve also heard it called Value Village) and grabbed a couple scarves. I had a couple berets at home and decided to purchase a great black, felt cloche. I was pretty set. I decided to try the oh-so-glamorous cloche for work first. The president happened to walk by and make a favourable comment.
I quickly determined that a cloche, while oh-so-glamorous, wasn’t terribly appropriate office attire. I felt it was rude to have a brim blocking my face. I’m nearly average height for a woman so most people would be looking down onto a brim, not able to even make out my nose. Berets became the thing. They were quick and I was still clumsy with a scarf. Here is where X once again enters the picture. I had been wearing my hair covered to work for a few weeks when I had to run some papers to X.
(The following conversation is paraphrased and not a direct quotation.)
“Why are you wearing that? You know you’re not allowed to wear that. They can ask you to take it off,” X besieged me with questions.
“The president saw me wearing a hat the other day and said he liked it,” I was so confused and surprised I could barely sputter a complete sentence.
“Well, why are you wearing that anyway?” X continued trying a few more ways of asking the same question.
I ended up telling X, that if Manager or President asked, I would have a conversation with them to explain my reasonings. There were a few more sentences exchanged where X demanded and I skirted the questions. It ended with X in a huff. I assume it is because for once, X didn’t have all the information desired.
A conversation (or interrogation) such as the above can be very disconcerting. This is particularly true when someone is demanding and impolite. The particular incident with X is by far the worst and most uncomfortable that I’ve had, and it wasn’t that bad.
Since the accounting job with X, I have had a job interview, networking events, and a few jobs. My hair covering hasn’t really hindered me. One interview I did have where I wore a beret with my bangs out (some girls have booby cleavage, I have hair cleavage) I didn’t get the job. I don’t believe the hair covering, although potentially confusing, had anything to do with me not getting the job. It is far more likely that the determining factors were my awkward manner and the several double thumbs-up which were invariably accompanied by a goofball, open-mouthed grin.
A year and a half after the most awkward interview of my life, I had the best. I was applying for a CA articling position in Winnipeg. I ended up meeting up with my interviewer in Vancouver. I let him know he could spot me by the grey headscarf (I’d finally worked the headscarf issues out). I was easy to spot, dressed in a grey blazer and charcoal skirt that reached the middle of my calves. As previously stated, it was the best interview of all time because nothing was said about my head-scarf, nor were there any awkward stares. The interviewer and I got along famously. Very little of the job or my qualifications were discussed (though of course they were slid in there somewhere.) it was simply a 45 minute conversation with a man who could give me a job. The interview ended with us setting a new contact date and Interviewer saying, “You are not the stereotypical accountant, you’d fit in really well with us. We have someone moving on after tax season likely. We should keep in contact.” My mode of dress had nothing to do with whether I was stereo-typical or not. I am generally perceived as bubbly and outgoing. I’m not quiet and no one sees the introverted tendencies during an interview. In a field where people feel they can retreat into an office (so not the case) having someone who is articulate and comfortable in different situations is a great benefit. Saying I wasn’t stero-typical was a great compliment. In the end, I decided not to pursue a job in the city not-so-affectionately refered to as Winterpeg, ManiSnowba.
My personal thoughts and recommendations on the touchy subject:
I prefer to wear something, to interviews, that is easily recognisable as a modesty covering.
For me this means a head-scarf and hiding my bangs. My scarf is wrapped in a way that most closely resembles Spanish Hijab. While this isn’t the way I may cover at work all the time, it is fairly obvious to people when you first meet them that this isn’t a bad-hair day nor is it laziness on your part. I will also take out the lip and tongue rings. This can get very confusing for people when they see someone donning modesty attire while sporting facial piercings
The employers (or other employees) are typically more afraid to mention your head-covering than you are of them asking.
In Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of religion. These days, in this part of the country at least, to be insensitive to rights covered in the Charter is now as bad as segregation or enforcing a glass ceiling. No sane interviewer is going to ask you why you’re wearing a headscarf. They will make an assumption. You need to help them make the right one.
We think people are looking at our head-coverings or high-necked tops more than they are. Employers and colleagues, in most parts of the country, are particularly careful about asking a question that would make you feel like your Chart Rights are being infringed upon. They presumably value their job and being named a defendant in a human rights trial is something of a career killer.
The hardest time or way to transition from uncovered to covered is at the same job, and without warning.
If you don’t chat with people at work and slip in a hint or two about your decision to cover your head, they will likely be more inquisitive. If you feel like you need to have a conversation with someone, make it your direct supervisor, if possible. Keep it brief. A simple, “As a matter of modesty I will start covering my hair in public,” should be ample. If you wanted to be more specific you could say, “As a matter of modesty and religious observance I will be covering my hair in public.” Neither of these explanations state you will be covering, “at work,” but rather, “in public.” This is an important distinction. The former emphasises a work-appropriate dress decision and latter a life decision. An employer could argue that if you were just covering at work, then the head-covering could fall under the dress code and you could legally be asked to remove it. You want to avoid that awkward situation. Be specific and be brief.
If you’ve talked to your supervisor prior to showing up with your head covered you’ll have an ally. If someone asks you a question and you don’t want to answer you can tell them you discussed it with your supervisor. That should be the end of that.
Resistance is not futile.
Look for a future post when it comes to school and religious observances entitled: Do you want a note from my priest?
Generally, if you’ve briefly explained your mode of dress you shouldn’t have a problem. If you do your first stop should be your supervisor or manager. Don’t jump the latter. You want to be sane and rational. The worst thing for you is to look like your going on a rampage or you’ve got a vendetta. Before you go to your supervisor or manager check your employee handbook. If they have a policy for grievances use that. If you are in a unionised environment, contact a union rep to ask about the appropriate process. If you don’t have a handbook, or the handbook doesn’t have a grievance procedure, or you aren’t in a union keep reading.
Please be aware that beyond my personal working experience and business degree I am not an expert in the law. This advice does not take the place of legal counsel and I will not be held responsible for any problems arising if you act on my advice. I think it’s good advice, but I can’t know the specifics of your situation. In school, they teach us to cover our behinds, and now that I’ve done it, let’s continue.
Remember that if someone was joking, and you feel uncomfortable, it’s ok to lodge a complaint. Just because they thought they were being good-natured about it, doesn’t mean you need to keep quiet. In this kind of situation, a resolution is usually quickly and amicably reached.
If your issue is with your supervisor or manager or they wont do anything about it, you’ll need to find a third-party. If your company has an HR person or Ombudsmen these are great options. HR employees are typically more trained to handle sensitive situations. Ombudsmen are the professionally unbiased. They look for the best solution for all involved. Contacting HR or the ombudsmen is my personal preference to talking to your supervisor’s superior, particularly, if no prior relationship between the two of you exists. If, however, you are known to and comfortable with your supervisor’s superior, do contact them.
In cases such as these, a face-to-face sit down with your 3rd party is going to be the most appropriate. It may terrify you but it clearly demonstrates the importance of the issue. Send an email, or stop by and make an appointment for a quick meeting. Simply ask for a meeting to discuss an employee issue. You can also say that you want to discuss the matter personally rather than through other means. This will allow for you to be vague without your 3rd party being blind-sided. Setting up a meeting means your will have a time where you won’t be interrupted. If 3rd Party knows the meeting is about something sensitive, they are more likely to get to it sooner. Hit that “urgent” option on your email if you need. Again, don’t be scared. It doesn’t do your employer any good to have one employee violating the rights of another. It’s bad for business. They will want to deal with it quickly.
During this meeting, take your time. It’s okay to be nervous. Remember, you’re uncomfortable and you have indicated that already. A reasonable person will let you fumble for your words a bit without being outwardly frustrated. You can jot down a couple of talking points in your notebook to help you keep on track. (I have ADD and do this as a daily coping strategy. People think I’m being hyper-diligent. I’ve never had anyone make me feel bad about it.) Make sure you have two or three separate instances where the individual(s) in question have been inappropriate. This helps your 3rd Party see that there is a pattern and not an isolated incident. When talking, avoid personal or emotionally weighty language. Again, be specific and to the point.
Not: “So-and-So is always attacking me. They’re rude and vindictive…”
Try: “So-and-So has made unprofessional comments about my religious beliefs. A few of the comments they have made are: [Try to get three that you can remember well. If you have difficulty remembering this won’t be much help.] I feel the comments made by So-and-So are unprofessional and make me extremely uncomfortable.”
If you’ve taken any measures to deal with the problem before coming to visit 3rd Party, briefly explain them. Now is the time to suggest a reasonable solution if you have one. It could be as simple as you wanting So-and-So notified that their behaviour is inappropriate. If you want your privacy protected (sometimes this won’t be possible, so be prepared) make sure you state it. The obvious may be just that, but it never hurts to point it out. Do not ask for So-and-So to be fired. This may come to pass, but this can seem like you’re going for the jugular.
Be prepared for the need to check in a couple of times with 3rd Party. Except for in extreme cases, employment law dictates that employees be warned, and given the time and tools to correct their actions. This may be a process. It will be difficult for you to give them the benefit of the doubt, but do try. You can make an appointment with 3rd Party for your next check in. Again, no fear.
If you try talking to 3rd Party and still nothing is getting done, try Superior 3rd Party. Go up the chain, making sure you give appropriate length of time for action to be taken. A month is probably enough, but use good judgement here. If all company avenues prove fruitless you may need to take a bigger step.
As I’ve said before, it is likely that it will be handled to your satisfaction within the company. The next step is a big one. It’s time to contact the Canadian Human Rights commission (or your country’s equivalent. Below is an excerpt from the CHRC website:
The Canadian Human Rights Commission provides dispute resolution services in cases of alleged discrimination by federally regulated organizations, including employers, unions and service providers. Allegations of discrimination are screened to ensure they fall within the Commission’s jurisdiction, and inquirers may be referred to other redress mechanisms, such as a grievance process. If the dispute falls within the Commission’s jurisdiction, the parties are offered services to assist them in resolving the matter without filing a complaint. If the matter cannot be resolved and the inquirer wishes to file a complaint, the case may be assigned to a mediator or an investigator. Ultimately, the Commission may ask that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hear the case. Throughout the process, the parties are encouraged to look for solutions by participating in alternative dispute resolution.
While the subject of today’s post is serious, don’t look at any of this as a barrier. I’ve been covering for 3+ years. I have a driver’s licence with my hair covered, and soon my passport will be too. For 98% of all occasions, you will be respected without question. Be Brave. Covering your head is only scary for the first little bit. Wearing shoes or a long-sleeved skirt isn’t scary. Eventually your head-covering will fall into the same category.