Most people suffer with bad haircuts only as long as it takes them to grow out. Not so for Nicole Wright-Gore, a North Carolina supply clerk who ended up losing her job over her "terrible haircut"—and spent nearly four years fighting for it back.
Wright-Gore, who worked at a long-term care facility called White Oak Manor, began wearing a hat to work on October 23, 2007, because she was "unable to do anything with [her] hair," she later testified. After a week, she was told that the hat violated the dress code, so she'd need to remove it. She protested that other employees could wear hats and refused.
The next day, which happened to be Halloween, she turned up to work dressed as a race-car driver, complete with chapeau. She removed it when she was asked, but was still written up for insubordination because of her prior infractions.
So Wright-Gore, who'd observed other employees wearing hats and displaying tattoos (both in violation of White Oak Manor's dress code), took matters into her own cell phone. She talked to about 10 fellow employees about what she thought was an unfair enforcement of the dress code and snapped photos of them violating it. But one complained to management that she had photographed him without permission.
Turns out the company had a policy against taking pictures inside the facility without written permission, a policy Wright-Gore had clearly violated. So it fired her on Nov. 16, 2007, for that reason.
She filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, citing a provision of the National Labor Relations Act that allows employees to engage in "concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." It's illegal for employers “to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of [these] rights.” (This is the same provision for which the NLRB has taken action against employers for disciplining employees who make disparaging remarks about the company or their co-workers on Facebook or other social media.)
At her NLRB hearing, Wright-Gore showed evidence that the photography policy had not been enforced—that employees routinely snapped photos of each other at work and circulated and posted them.
An administrative law judge ruled that White Oak had violated the act, finding that "she was being treated unfairly by being required to remove her hat." It also noted that her violation of the photography policy should not strip her of the law's protections, especially because the policy had not been enforced. It ordered White Oak to reinstate her with back pay and interest. After several rounds of review, the case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which upheld the administrative law judge's ruling.
Boyd Boyers, an employment lawyer with Kansas firm Foulston Siefkin, observed that the case has a useful lesson for businesses.
"First, if a policy is worth having, it’s worth enforcing," he wrote. "And if it’s worth enforcing, it needs to be enforced fairly and even-handedly. As the old saying goes, unenforced laws are bad laws."