Firing by Hair Cuttery cut too deep for readers

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, November 14, 2010; G01

Shawn Dunning has been getting his hair cut every three weeks at a Hair Cuttery salon in the District of Columbia for years.

He loves his stylist, typically giving her a $5 tip after paying $18 for his cut. But Dunning - like so many other people who reached out to me - no longer wants to patronize the company, to make a statement about the recent firing of Kelly D. Brown.

Hair Cuttery, a division of the Vienna, Va.-based Ratner Companies, has a blanket policy of not hiring ex-offenders, especially those with felony convictions. But despite that policy, Brown, who was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and served six years of an eight-year sentence, was hired last March.

At the time of her hiring, Brown, 32, was upfront about the circumstances surrounding her conviction with both the salon manager and a company recruiter. She worked for the salon in Baltimore for seven months and was dismissed only after she asked permission to be photographed for a profile I wrote for The Washington Post. It was the last part in a series I began earlier this year in which I looked at the difficulties ex-offenders have managing their personal finances.

In a statement last week about the firing, a spokesperson for Ratner said: "Kelly Brown did indicate on her application that she had been convicted of a crime; and yes, she explained her circumstances to the salon leader. Unfortunately for all involved, this information was not communicated to our Human Resources department; had it been, the application would have been denied.

"Our company does not begrudge any person's attempt to make a positive transition in his or her life, but we have an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of our stylists and our clients."

Dunning sent the company e-mails, which he shared with me.

"What I find troubling about this is that the people that hired her - presumably the ones in the best position to make a judgment call like this - must not have been concerned about this threat," Dunning wrote. "While I support your company's concern for safety, I find it hard to believe that the decision to fire Kelly Brown was based on any real threat. Does your company believe that people can change? Do you always judge people for actions of the past, regardless of potential for present and future behavior?"

The company did not respond to my requests to specify whether it had received complaints from customers such as Dunning. It did reiterate Ratner's hiring standards.

The outpouring of support for Brown has been overwhelming. I've received notes from the parents of ex-offenders distraught that, having served their time and staying out of trouble, their adult children also can't find work. Ex-offenders wrote begging for help in changing policies at other companies that keep them from working.

E-mails from Hair Cuttery customers also poured in criticizing the chain for its policy. Many people recognized what advocates for ex-offenders have stressed for years. With about 730,000 people nation-wide released from prison each year, there is a crisis for the formerly incarcerated who can't find jobs, even low-wage and low-skill jobs, because so many employers have blanket bans on hiring ex-offenders.

"I experience what you are highlighting in the case of Kelly Brown all day, everyday," said Tony Lewis, a job developer for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia. "People want to work and they can't, and it's really frustrating. What are they supposed to do? Never work again?"

Lewis is charged with finding employment for released prisoners. The high unemployment rate has made his job that much harder.

Lewis said he hopes that what happened to Brown will serve as a catalyst to change employment policies aimed at ex-offenders.

So far it's at least inspired compassion among Hair Cuttery customers.

Mark Nell, who retired as a police officer in Northern Virginia after 28 years, said he and his family would also stop patronizing the chain.

"I've seen people act stupidly, make big mistakes and suffer a heavy penalty," Nell said. "But when does it end?"

Vivienne Schmeisser of Jacksonville, Fla., wrote: "I will not use Hair Cuttery ever again. I am sure they won't miss my little business, but if many people do this, they may want to reconsider their stand."

Peggy Sclater, who lives in the eastern panhandle part of West Virginia, noted: "Everyone makes mistakes. The questions are: How should they be punished, by whom and for how long?"

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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