Corporate Compassion Denied: The Hair Cuttery Takes a PR Mis-Step

By on Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary opened up a big can of worms in its “Color of Money” challenge when it set out to write about Kelly D. Brown, an ex-offender who served her debt to society, trained for a new job, stayed out of trouble, and went out to earn a living as a hair stylist and support her son.

After Brown asked her employer, the Hair Cuttery, for permission to be photographed for a profile that Singletary was writing about ex-offenders and their bumpy road to financial security, she was fired. Even though Brown had revealed her felony conviction on her application for employment at the hair salon, the chain fired her, noting that Brown would have never been hired had her boss at the salon informed the human resources department of her criminal past.

This was a missed PR opportunity for the Hair Cuttery to demonstrate corporate compassion and a business doing the right thing for society. Here you have an employee, who by all accounts is liked by her co-workers and customers. She made mistakes in her past, long before she was a hair stylist. And now she’s thriving, thanks to the company’s willingness to give her a chance to prove herself as an employee. She’s about to be featured in a respected national newspaper about her struggle to reach financial security and support her young son – in a story that inevitably would have made her employer look like a saint. This is the kind of story public relations staff normally drool over.

The Hair Cuttery had the opportunity with this story to look like a corporate chain doing the right thing – they could have given permission for the photograph by the Post – and instead they blew it. They missed a huge PR opportunity to demonstrate their corporate values and gain exposure – the right kind – for their company. What was the worst thing that could have happened with a positive profile of Brown in the Post for her work at Hair Cuttery? Would they have been deluged with applications from ex-offenders? Would they have had customers running in fear from the stores? The chain would have come across as a compassionate corporate citizen, willing to believe that people can become better and change their lives.

Instead, they fired Brown and the Hair Cuttery came across as petty and even bureaucratic in the media. Spokespeople cited a mis-step by the salon leader (who did not inform the HR department of Brown’s criminal past), as the reason for her firing, and noted that they have a blanket policy of not hiring ex-offenders. The Washington Post has been deluged with calls and comments from readers supporting Kelly Brown and critizing the salon chain. One customer letter sent to both Hair Cuttery and the Washington Post said:

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?”

If ex-offenders cannot get legitimate jobs, they will be forced to return to lives of crime to earn money to support themselves and their families. Many of the letter writers who contacted the Hair Cuttery and the Washington Post to complain about Brown’s firing are now boycotting the chain.

What this episode says about our society is troubling. It says that mistakes are not forgiveable, even if you reform yourself and do your best to stay out of trouble and play by the rules. It says that a company would rather can an employee because of mistakes made in her past, than believe the better in people.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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