Marriott Corp. officials did what was expected of a company of that stature this week when they decided that an employee's hair style wasn't extreme after all. By allowing the employee of the J.W. Marriott Hotel to continue wearing her hair styled in cornrows, Marriott gave the proper response to a monumental public relations gaffe.
Supervisors at the hotel had advised the employee several weeks ago that her hair style didn't conform with company policy. Marriott officials retreated in the wake of widespread publicity, however, and assured the employee Wednesday that she could keep her job and hair style. "Her hair style conforms; it's not excessive. Hers is a neat style that doesn't have excessive ornamentation," a Marriott spokesman told reporters.
The fact that supervisors raised the issue in the first place implies a contradiction of Marriott's philosophy in employee relations, for which the company so often has been praised.
In his book, "Family Pride," a series of profiles on some of America's best family-run businesses, Thomas Goldwasser notes that Marriott has always been known as a company with contented employees. Marriott certainly couldn't afford to have that image destroyed in an ugly controversy that attracted national publicity.
Marriott had little choice in reversing the ban on the employee's hair style, given the reaffirmation of the company's traditional values in 1984 by J. Willard Marriott, the company's founder, and J.W. Marriott Jr., its chairman.
At that time, they said: "Because Marriott is a service company, our performance is unusually dependent upon people. We have always tried to treat employees with dignity and respect at every level of our organization. To attract and retain good people, we will continue to provide an atmosphere of fair treatment and dynamic growth."
J.W. Marriott Jr. is quoted in Goldwasser's book as having said, "Our name is on our hotels, and that's a great honor, but it's also an awesome responsibility. If we slip at all, it's a reflection on Marriott, and there's no way that I'd let us lose our reputation and good name."
Common sense has prevailed, as expected, and Marriott has taken corrective action to save its good name -- not only by approving the employee's hair style and restoring her to her position at the hotel but in initiating steps to clarify the company's dress policy.
The D.C. Office of Human Rights plans to follow up a complaint by the employee, but Marriott at least is cognizant of the need to strike a balance between company policy and employee dignity.
Now that Marriott has apparently ended the controversy, other firms in metropolitan Washington would do well to review their policies pertaining to hair styles and dress codes.
Like it or not, managers are likely to find that the controversy involving Marriott wasn't an isolated incident in the workplace. Indeed, at least two employees at Hyatt hotels in the area have complained that they, too, were told that cornrow hair styles were not appropriate for work. The merits of their complaints and the policies involved are yet to be determined.
In the meantime, some see the issue as needing to be addressed by the leadership of Washington's business community. Several reporters pressed the issue at the inaugural press conference of the new president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade Tuesday.
Board President Delano E. Lewis tactfully avoided a reporter's attempt to draw him into the controversy. When asked what, if anything, he and the Board of Trade planned to do to resolve the dispute at Marriott, Lewis responded that he represents the board's 1,500 corporate and 4,000 individual members and that the issue had not come before the membership.
Pressed further by other questioners, Lewis said the Board of Trade would study the matter if it ever became an issue that affected the business community.
It already is an issue with significant implications for every manager in Washington's business community. The Board of Trade can't and shouldn't be setting policy for member firms.
On the other hand, board-sponsored forums on employee relations might help avert another controversy over hair styles, or hemlines or beards.
Beginning next week, Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr.'s column will appear in the Washington Business section on Mondays and in the Business section on Thursdays.