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Ex-employee alleges Bert Nash supervisor asked her to change her natural Black hair style, discriminated against her

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Post updated at 4:19 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19:

A former employee of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center alleges that her supervisor asked her to make her hair “more white looking” because her natural Black hair looked “messy and unkempt.”

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After she spoke up about feeling that she was being discriminated against, she was terminated, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court. 

Tia N. Guesby, of Lawrence, was employed at Bert Nash from June 2018 through March 2021. In December 2020, Guesby, working as a certified nursing assistant, transferred to the center’s medical team. 

Within a month, Guesby’s new supervisor asked her to “change her natural hairstyle because it looked ‘messy and unkempt,’” the complaint alleges. 

Guesby’s supervisor, Donna Powers, required her “to look at Google Images searched by her supervisor of ‘Black hair styles’ that would be ‘conservative enough,’ ‘more white looking’ to change her ‘ethnic hair,’” according to the complaint.

Guesby felt “trapped within the office” by Powers during the exchange, in which she was shown images of Black women with braids, straightened hair and wigs, the suit alleges.

White employees in similar positions were not asked to change their hairstyles, and Guesby was subjected to racial harassment and “felt she would be terminated for not changing her hairstyle,” according to the complaint.

Guesby’s lawsuit alleges she made a racial discrimination complaint to Alana Beer within the human resources department at Bert Nash, and Beer set up a meeting between Guesby, Powers and Medical Director Nana Dadson. Guesby was subsequently terminated in March 2021 “on the basis of her race and in retaliation for her complaint of racial discrimination,” the suit alleges.

Guesby made a written statement alleging discrimination and retaliation by Bert Nash with the Kansas Human Right Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2021. Bert Nash responded and “alleged that the reason for terminating (Guesby) was based upon a HIPAA violation,” which Guesby denied, according to the claim.

Guesby’s lawsuit requests a jury trial and seeks relief in various forms, including reinstatement to her former job; back pay with interest; more than $150,000 for future monetary and nonmonetary losses, emotional pain, suffering, mental anguish, incovenience, humiliation, ridicule, and loss of enjoyment of life; more than $100,000 in punitive damages; eradication of policies and practices that have contributed to “past and present unlawful practices and discrimination”; and attorneys fees and legal costs.

Jeff Burkhead, a spokesperson for Bert Nash, said via email Monday that “Our practice is to not comment on personnel matters.”

Brad Finkeldei, the attorney at Stevens and Brand who is listed as the center’s resident agent, said he had not yet been served with the complaint as of Monday afternoon.

A phone message left with the Topeka office of the plaintiff’s attorney, Pantaleon Florez Jr., was not immediately returned. 

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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