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Company Policy vs. Policing at Work

This is a mercifully short article for such a poignant topic. Even though hiring women and including women in places of business involves nuance, sometimes the details are fairly straightforward.

First, the central premise:

What a policy? In the context of work, a company policy is an attempt to give the team enough structure so that essential functions can occur.

Like a 2-week return policy because deciding when it should be every time you sell an item would be distracting. Or giving 1 larger annual bonus instead of smaller quarterly bonuses because there has to be a plan for when funds are disbursed. Or maybe a strict “no reply all” on email threads because no one wants to be tethered to their inbox until the cows come home.

What’s policing? In the context of work, company policing is an attempt to control people to fit our standards of how business should be done without regard to the impact of exerting our will over others.

A brief illustration before we get into an example of policing at work. Think back… Did your school have a dress code?

Approximately 5 billion years ago, when I was in high school, we (meaning the female students) were suddenly not allowed to wear tank tops. It happened to be my senior year, so what felt like an arbitrary (at best) rule, felt downright absurd after 3 years of not a peep about the evils of tank tops.

The problem? Apparently “the boys” were “distracted” during class by being able to see our “bra straps” run adjacent to the thin fabric that makes a tank top, well, a tank top that one wears when it’s hot out. What would come of our school if male students were distracted during class?

This is an example of policing because it’s about fear disguised as decorum.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I saw a post from Novelly, an EdTech organization that uses stories to stimulate courageous conversations and civic engagement. (Disclosure--I’m on their Board.) Apparently, 5 billion years after my own experience with being policed at school, it’s still happening with today’s high school girls. So it’s no wonder that it seems acceptable to policewomen at work, too.

So, back to how policing plays out at the office.

An example is telling women we need to lose weight or straighten our hair to look “professional.” Or, phrased another way, that to be in public-facing positions, a woman must appear a certain way to be taken seriously.

As a curly-haired human myself, I’ve frequently queried, “are you referencing the hair that comes out of my head?” The trouble is that appearance is a signifier for more than what’s skin deep. The “professional hair” conversation has a long racially and ethnically charged connotation, with “good hair” being a stand-in for “good pedigree,” which is a euphemism for “good genes.” Being “kempt” is associated with better insides. And we all want to be at the company with the best insides.

Hair is one of the ways companies policewomen. In the West, this has been forced onto Black women. And it’s also a good illustration of why ethnicity is crucial to establishing inclusivity at work; historically, in Western countries, African people with pale skin, Irish people, and Jewish people were considered “colored” and often curly. The message is, “the way you are is not acceptable.”

The “your hair is making people uncomfortable” response feels really preposterous... until I consider that it’s the same message I was given as a teen.

What companies actually need is to support people through structures, not control them through fear.

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