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Zara employee claims workplace discrimination because of braids

Last Updated Apr 8, 2016 at 6:55 am EST

Cree Ballah says she was discriminated against at work because of her braids.

A Zara employee says she’s considering filing a human rights complaint and quitting her job at the popular clothing retailer after she claims she was discriminated against because of her braids.

When Cree Ballah interviewed for a job at Zara in February, she was told she couldn’t have extreme colours in her hair. That’s why the 20 year-old removed grey extensions from her box braids before her first day of work.

“When I went to my hair dresser I told her I can’t have any colour,” she says. “Just to do like the most simple braids you can possibly give me. I made sure they were very neat just because of potential issues I could have.”

But Ballah was surprised when an HR manager pulled her aside on her second day of work at the new Scarborough Town Centre location.

“She said ‘your hair is too extreme for the Zara store. Please take it down’.”

At the time, Ballah had ten thick braids, which she had tied into two ponytails. She says two managers walked her outside the store and asked her to tie the braids a number of different ways until they were satisfied with a low bun.

Ballah says she felt embarrassed and humiliated, being examined in plain view of customers and fellow employees.

“She reassured me, ‘we’re not trying to offend you, but we’re going for a clean, professional look.’ Then I asked her, ‘what is a clean professional look to you?’ And she replied, ‘natural colours.’”

Ballah pointed out she had no bright colours in her hair and that there were multiple store employees with brightly dyed hair —  in direct contradiction of the company policy.

She says one of the managers told her the colour of her hair wasn’t the problem, but that her braids were unprofessional.

“That’s when I started to cry,” she said.

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In an email statement, a spokesperson for Zara told CityNews:  “Zara has no formal policy regarding employees’ hairstyles; we expect all employees to ensure that they present a professional appearance that enables them to serve our valued customers.”

They would not comment directly on Ballah’s situation, saying, “We have engaged directly with the employee on this matter and respect the privacy of those discussions.”

Ballah decided to remove the braids after two days — they had cost the university student nearly $200, and would typically have been kept in for three weeks. While her employment was never directly threatened by any manager, Ballah says she feared for her job, calling the work environment “tense” following the incident.

Ballah believes she was discriminated against for her hair type — which she says is linked to her race — and filed a formal complaint with the company’s HR department. She says a meeting two weeks later did not address any of her concerns, and she was told it was just a misunderstanding.

“The way they handled it was extremely unprofessional,” Ballah says. “The words they used were very problematic. To suggest that they were going for a clean professional look, and I didn’t fall in that, to suggest that my hair wasn’t clean, or professional, just because I had braids in.”

Ballah says she also wants Zara to clarify and enforce policies around hairstyles, so that employees aren’t arbitrarily singled out like she was.

“The guidelines are not fair,” she says. “My hair was deemed a problem, but someone with blue hair was fine, and someone with pink hair and a shaved side head was fine, and somebody who has two pigtails in straight hair is fine.”