Upper East Side Salon Under Investigation for Racial Discrimination

Upper East Side Salon Under Investigation for Racial Discrimination

New York City is reviewing complaints from former employees at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger who say their hair was deemed inappropriate for work.

A client getting her hair washed at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.CreditCreditBenjamin Norman for The New York Times

Former workers at a luxury Upper East Side hair salon that is under investigation for racial discrimination said this week that they were told by the management there that Afros and box-braided hairstyles did not reflect the upscale image of the neighborhood.

Three women who worked as receptionists and are black, and three other former employees who are white, said a salon dress code was put into effect in recent years that discouraged hairstyles associated with black culture, and was not uniformly applied to all employees. One woman said she was fired for objecting to those rules.

The salon, Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, is located on the top two floors of an elegant townhouse on East 71st Street and is a favorite with celebrities like Meg Ryan and Kate Hudson. Ms. Hershberger, 58, known for her $1,000 haircuts and “24K” hair products in gold-trimmed black packaging, has tended personally to Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. Ms. Dorram, 59, a colorist, has a client roster that includes Christie Brinkley and Renée Zellweger.

The former workers at the salon spoke to The Times following news that New York City would ban discrimination based on hair. The change in law, which will be enforced by New York City’s human rights commission, applies to anyone targeted at work, school or a public place. It is aimed in particular at remedying unfair treatment of black people; the guidelines specifically mention the right of New Yorkers to maintain their “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

Between 2016 and 2018, four complaints were filed to New York City’s human rights commission about the management and one senior stylist at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger. The resulting investigation into the salon led, in part, to the announcement last week of the city’s ban on discrimination based on hair.

The first complaint was filed in July 2016 by a former general manager who is white and said he felt sickened by being asked to implement an employee hair policy that he said was applied more to black workers than white ones. The second complaint was filed in December 2016 by a former receptionist, who is black and said she was a target of racial discrimination.

Two other complaints were filed in June 2018. One was from a former receptionist who is Hispanic and claimed she was asked to steer clients away from stylists who refused to sign a document attesting to the fairness of the salon’s dress code. The document, she said, stated that the dress code was longstanding and applied equally to black and white workers. (The fourth complaint was filed by a white stylist who said he was called an anti-Semitic slur and had his career threatened when he sought legal counsel. The complaints from 2018 were first reported by the New York Post.)

Interviewed at the salon on Wednesday, Ms. Dorram refused to address specific details of the complaints because the investigation is still open but said, “None of it is true.” Ms. Hershberger, an owner of the salon with Ms. Dorram and Steven Tuttleman, a financier, also denied being involved in any racial discrimination. (As co-owners, all three are named as respondents in the investigation complaints.)

Five former employees at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, and a lawyer for two others, described to this reporter a racially charged atmosphere that was particularly tense during the summer of 2015. That August, the dress code was disseminated verbally. Along with reminding employees that clothing should be black and that bluejeans, ripped clothing and nose rings were forbidden, it required shoulder-length hair to be pulled up or back.

David Speer, the former general manager and the first individual to file a complaint with the city, said that it was only after he hired three black women — Taren Guy, Raelene Roberts and Regine Aubourg — to work as receptionists that Ms. Dorram asked him to create a dress code.

Mr. Speer, who worked at the salon for six years beginning in 2009, said there had been several negative comments from Ms. Dorram and a senior stylist about the women’s hair. In one text message he shared from August 17, 2015, Ms. Dorram said to him:

“Today looked awful. Rail yne (sic) had her dreads down; Regine just got hers to match as long and of course Tarren (sic) All 3 at desk and we look like we should be on E. 134th Street. Sorry, nor(sic) racist just telling you we are on Mad. and 71st.”

Mr. Speer, who said he had made clear he found these statements offensive, replied by text, “And Madison can never be black. Is that right?”

Ms. Dorram responded to him saying that he was “missing the point.”

Another text message sent on the same day from Ms. Dorram to Mr. Speer said:

“Can’t be 3 girls at the desk. 2 like this and 1 w/ big Afro. What is our image Please instruct them not to wear hair down and no nose rings”

In a sworn statement submitted as evidence to the human rights commission, Erica Ocasio, a receptionist at the salon for two years beginning in 2013, wrote that Ms. Dorram told her: “We didn’t create this new rule because of you. You look beautiful with your hair down. It’s the other girls. Their hair looks disgusting.”

Ms. Ocasio, 28, who is Puerto Rican, said in an interview this week that she quit her job at the salon because she felt the hair-up rule was racist.

Ms. Roberts, 29, said Ms. Dorram once looked at her and said, “What are we going to do about your hair?” After the hair-up rule was issued, Ms. Roberts said she wore a wig to avoid the time-consuming blow-drying that would be necessary to straighten her hair. “But I was told not to wear it,” she said. “The next day, I blew out my hair straight and they liked that.” (She noted that with the summer humidity, it was hard to keep it that way.)

Ms. Roberts said that if white employees wore their hair down, “no one said anything.” She quit in May 2016 and filed a complaint several months later in December.

Ms. Guy, 35, quit the day the employee hair policy was introduced, giving two weeks notice on August 24, 2015. By phone this week, she said no one ever criticized her hair to her face but that co-workers relayed negative comments they had heard from management about her Afro.

Ms. Guy described the policy of mandating ponytails and buns as “a cop-out.” She said: “They were trying to figure out a way to have me not wear my hair like this,” referring to her Afro.

Ms. Aubourg, 26, also quit shortly after the rules were introduced, about a year after she was hired. When she started at the salon in October 2014, Ms. Aubourg wore her hair in a weave and it was straight. But later that year, after she came back from vacation with box braids, a senior stylist, Tim Lehman, didn’t approve, she said.

“He said, ‘Your hair is ugly,’” Ms. Aubourg said this week. She said she quit in September 2015: “I did not file a complaint. I just wanted to be done.” Mr. Lehman did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Ms. Dorram vehemently denied that the employee hair policy was racially motivated and said the text messages were mischaracterized. She also said she offered Ms. Roberts a promotion and a raise and claimed that after Ms. Roberts quit, she would return to the salon for blowouts.

Ms. Dorram stood by her insistence that her employees groom themselves in keeping with the more “traditional” atmosphere of an Upper East Side salon. Her comments, she said, were intended to establish that the location and clientele of the salon leans toward “classic” in a stylistic sense, rather than edgy.

“We’re not 8th Street,” she said. “We’re not downtown.”

“We’re the United Nations here,” Ms. Dorram said, gesturing toward a fifth-floor nook with a view of copper roof topped-town houses, decorated with orchids and a circular settee. “I have every nationality, every skin color. I’m a Jew who was married to an Arab and a German. I am not racist. I am not a bigot. This is my house.” She later added that she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

In an email statement, Ms. Hershberger’s spokeswoman, Samira Shamoon said:

“Sally Hershberger is 100% against racist discrimination and all other types of discrimination in the workplace and beyond.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Tuttleman said he was unaware of the details of the allegations. He described himself as a “silent partner,” who is not involved in the daily operations of the salon. “Of course, I don’t condone racial discrimination at all and never would support it in any capacity,” he said.

Mr. Speer, the general manager, shared emails with the Times that he sent to Ms. Hershberger and Mr. Tuttleman in August of 2015 informing them that he was resigning because he refused to enforce dress code policies.

“I do not see anything wrong with having a style code — but it must be inclusive, respectful, and leave room for people of color, in this instance, African Americans,” he wrote. “When I voiced concerns, I was told that if I couldn’t be supportive, I should leave.”

The next day, Mr. Speer said, Ms. Hershberger offered him a job at her downtown salon. (That offer was later rescinded, according to two emails shared by Mr. Speer.)

Ingrid Sandoval, who is Hispanic and worked on and off as a receptionist between 2015 and 2017, filed another of the complaints, according to her lawyer, Patrick Boyd. In the spring of 2017, he said, stylists at the salon were asked, and in some cases “pressured,” to sign a statement asserting that the employee hair policy — which had been emailed to employees in February of that year — was longstanding and applied to everyone, regardless of race. On May 4, 2017, Ms. Sandoval and other receptionists were told by the manager at the time, Linda Sabky, not to book clients for those stylists who refused to sign the statement. Ms. Sandoval refused, Mr. Boyd said. She was fired in October 2017. Ms. Sabky could not be reached for comment.

Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger is one of four businesses under investigation by the city’s human rights commission for racial discrimination based on hair. (The others businesses, whose names have not been revealed, are a medical facility and a nonprofit in the Bronx, and a restaurant in Queens.) Alicia McCauley, a spokeswoman for the commission, declined to comment on the complaints.

The salon’s dress code was “protocol,” Ms. Dorram said. “It’s what clients will expect.”

“We need to look good,” she said. “If you have long hair, if you can sit on your hair, that’s not professional-looking.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Guy recalled that in her time at the salon, clients reacted positively to her look.

“They would be in awe of my Afro and say, ‘Oh my god, your hair — it’s so beautiful,” said Ms. Guy, who now has an online holistic and wellness company. “I wish my hair could look like that.’”


Published at Sat, 23 Feb 2019 13:08:11 +0000