The Harassment Problem at Salons Your Hairstylist Wants You to Know About


Hayleigh Hatcher has been wanting to work in beauty since she was a little girl playing dress-up.

"I was raised in the South by a mother with impeccable taste and a keen eye for beautiful things. She curled my hair and painted my nails from a very young age, and I loved it. By age nine I was giving makeovers," Hatcher told Mic. "Appearance enhancement gave me such joy, going to cosmetology school was a logical choice for me."

But after years of working in New York City salons and eventually starting her own practice out of her home, Hatcher can attest to a less pleasant side of the business: unwanted sexual advances, and even harassment, from clients.

"I have experienced a lot of sexual harassment over the years — it really comes with the territory in this profession," Hatcher told Mic. "The most common is men blatantly staring long and hard at my body. I have also had clients ask me inappropriate questions regarding sex and love, as well as over share about their sex lives. The worst is I've had a few men loiter after the appointment and aggressively follow me around my space like they are expecting something else, which truly frightened me."

There have been a few high-profile instances of sexual harassment in salons, in New York and other U.S. cities. But the cases that make headlines are typically lawsuits in which salon employees sue their bosses. In 2011, a female New York salon employee sued the Soho salon Devachan for $16 million for alleged sexual harassment by her male coworkers and bosses. In 2007, multiple sexual harassment lawsuits were filed against the upscale Andre Chreky's salon in Washington D.C. by former employees.

But the women who talked to Mic spoke mostly of problems with clients, rather than bosses or coworkers — a problem that makes headlines only occasionally.

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An intimate environment: "I've had people take off their shirts in my home, men and women," said Veronica*, a New York-based hair stylist who has been working in the city for the past six years, sometimes out of her own home. "You are their therapist as well, so they feel they can cross boundaries," she told Mic.

It's that intimate connection, both emotional and physical, that seems to encourage certain behavior between the person in the chair and the one tousling their hair. The fact that salons are often casual environments — workplaces where metal music blares and employees flaunt tattoos — can add to the intimacy.

"[It's an] environment where part of the business is for people to look really good and be touching their clients, and there's a certain amount of personal relationship that develops between customers and hairstylists," Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, as well as a specialist in employment law and author of the upcoming book Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women's Lives at Work, told Mic.

"We are one of the few non-sexual professions that have to touch their clients," Veronica said, adding that hairstylists are also misjudged. "Hairstylists have the stereotype of being flighty, party girls. ... Guys aren't threatened by this job as, say, a doctor might intimidate them [into respecting them]."

That can lead to real line-crossing, often in the form of flirting.

"They totally think its OK to ask you out," Hatcher told Mic, adding she's had clients book appointments with the sole purpose of trying to win a date. "I can tell instantly if someone is using the haircut as an attempt to get closer to me. If there was a genuine connection and a client asked me out in a direct and respectful manner, I would be OK with it, but that usually isn't the case. Most commonly, it's them flirting and behaving as if the haircut is actually a date. It's inappropriate."

Veronica's experience has been similar.

"I watched my heavily pregnant coworker get hit on by her client who said that the sex with his wife was the best during the last trimester," she said.

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Knowing what's against the law: According to a study conducted last year by Cosmopolitan, one in three women have been sexually harassed at work. When asked rates for the salon industry, Thomas, the attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, told Mic, "There aren't a lot of hard and fast statistics breaking down industries, but what you've heard [from the stylists interviewed] rings very true from my own experience."

Anne Brown, author of Backbone Power: The Science of Saying No, attested to hearing these intentions from men first-hand. She told Mic that she's "coached men who say, 'I want to ask my hairdresser out. She seems to be flirting with me.' I teach them to be very respectful just like anywhere else – when it's no, it's no."

But the line between attempted flirting and sexual harassment is not always clearly defined. According to NYC Commission on Human Rights, behavior qualifies as unlawful sexual harassment when "such conduct unreasonably interferes with job performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

But that can be hard to define, and laws vary at the federal, state and city levels, Thomas explained to Mic:

A 1993 [Supreme Court] case clarified that what's abusive is what a reasonable person would consider abusive ... [which] excludes the outlier cases that people like to hypothesize about: 'Oh, he can't compliment her because that will be sexual harassment.' No, that's not severe or pervasive. If you compliment her every single day, and it's clearer that that's unwelcome, then maybe that starts to get to a level of pervasive. Similarly, a single incident of extremely severe harassment, like a physical assault, would also rise to the level of being illegal.

"The law does protect employees from customer harassment — it doesn't have to be someone employed by the employer," she added, stating that the type of harassment the stylists described to Mic could indeed be categorized as sexual harassment if severe or pervasive.

It's an issue that salon workers and owners do discuss, as evidenced by blog posts and online conversations on the topic. But both Veronica and Hatcher told Mic that the issue wasn't addressed at the institutes they attended, including Aveda Institute New York, where Veronica went.

"I can't recall this being addressed in cosmetology school or on any job sites, but it certainly should!" said Hatcher. "Boundaries are essential in this profession for serenity and success. There is a fine line between taking care of the client and taking care of yourself. Being equipped with the knowledge and tools to handle these situations is imperative."

When Aveda Institute New York was contacted for comment, Mic was told via email that the institute has "two publicly available briefing documents for our students who attend our corporately owned institutes in Minneapolis and New York (they are adapted to ensure all state requirements are met). ... The students are also required to watch a video on the subject."

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But it still largely falls on employees themselves to know what to do in the moment. ReeRee Rockette, owner of Rockalily Cuts in London, told Mic that while she's not sure they've had many inappropriate clients, her "boss' advice to staff is that they can use me as a scapegoat to politely turn dates down (I'll get in trouble with my boss, etc)." 

"Salons can be boundary-less environments riddled with dysfunction," Hatcher said. "Over the years my reactions have changed. Earlier in my career I would laugh nervously and stumble upon my words, but continue to engage them. I lacked the confidence to hold my own behind the chair. These days, I just don't engage it. If I catch someone drooling over me, I just ignore it and keep working. If an inappropriate topic arises, I shut it down."

* Last name has been withheld to allow subject to speak freely on private matters.