The most striking feature about Kenneth Dickens is the black mass of dreadlocks that falls just above his shoulders in an intricate pattern resembling a lion’s mane. The 37-year-old former Federal Express senior service agent and practicing Buddhist has been growing his locks—which he regards as an ‘integral’ part of his religion and African American identity—for the past seven years. “The process of locking my hair,” Dickens recalls, “was a painstaking labor of love.”
All the more reason why this 10-year employee of FedEx says that he was placed in a bind when on October 1, 1999, he was called into his supervisor’s office and told that he had five working days to cut his hair or face suspension and possible termination. On October 12, even more adamant about not cutting his hair, Dickens returned to work where he was promptly suspended without pay (a weekly net income of $550) for 90 days. His suspension ended January 12.
These days, Dickens spends much of his time in a spacious Jersey City apartment waiting for the final shoe to drop in the form of an official termination letter. He collects unemployment insurance and hopes that his discrimination case, filed with the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be resolved expeditiously.
Meanwhile, the package-delivery business has been quite good to FedEx, a privately owned company, which posted $14 billion in revenues last year. Founded in 1973, the company has headquarters in the U.S. and four major cities around the world, with over 150,000 employees. Part of FedEx’s daily business involves multiethnic and multicultural transactions. Judging from information on its Web site, the company prides itself, at least symbolically, on the notion of diversity: FedEx was ranked 13th in “Best Companies for Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics,” according to Fortune magazine.
So why, asks Dickens, when most U.S. companies are striving to achieve the often elusive goal of a ” diversified workforce,” does FedEx insist on denying his African heritage? More importantly, he questions what he views as the company’s selective enforcement of personnel regulations which allows some white male couriers to wear long hair and ponytails. Under FedEx regulations: “All male employees particularly those who have positions requiring customer contact . . . are prohibited from wearing beards, ponytails, braids, or earrings of any kind.”
Dickens says that in the various positions he has held with FedEx since leaving behind his native Los Angeles and a troubled youth, he, more often than not, had contact with the public. His first job, in 1990, was as a heavyweight-package handler. Two years later, he was promoted to full-time courier, delivering FedEx packages through the sometimes mean streets of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.
In fact, Dickens alleges that from 1992 to 1994 he was robbed numerous times, once at gunpoint. And then there were the eight accidents, all of which he says were intentionally caused by motorists seeking to sue FedEx. “It was only a matter of time until I exploded from the stress. In 1994, I went to my doctor and he diagnosed me as suffering from anxiety due to job-related stress.” Shortly thereafter, Dickens went on disability for almost two years.
Upon returning to FedEx in 1996, Dickens became a senior service agent. By February 1999, he was working with customers at a midtown service center. During the seven months that he held this position, he wore his locks without incident. A letter addressed to Dickens from management states that, “While you may have been allowed to wear your natural locked hair for several years . . . it is not of a reasonable length and therefore inappropriate for a customer contact position at FedEx.” Calls to FedEx’s New York and Memphis offices for comment were not returned.
Craig Gurian, a lawyer specializing in discrimination cases, believes that in cases like Dickens’s an employee must show that the company’s action in carrying out policy was selective and not enforced across the board regardless of race. “If FedEx’s policy is not being applied to white males who wear ponytails or long hair, then the company could be held accountable,” Gurian says.
When Dickens’s termination letter does arrive, it probably will say that he “voluntarily resigned.” But he insists that he had no choice but to leave the company. “Although FedEx said that I could have returned in a non-customer-contact position, the problem with my back makes it impossible to take the heavy-lifting jobs that they were offering.” He has found work as a freelance fashion stylist.
Dickens eventually hopes to receive back wages and compensation. Likewise, he wants to send a message to FedEx and other companies that a person’s identity, in this case, as an African American, cannot be comprised.