California became the first state to outlaw hair discrimination in the workplace when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Crown Act into law July 3.
It bans policies that discriminate against individuals with hairstyles "historically associated with race" including cornrows, Afros, dreadlocks, braids, or twists.
The law follows a New York City measure approved earlier this year that provides guidance against workplace discrimination based on an employee's hairstyle.
SB 188, the bill Newsom signed into law, notes "the history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated 'blackness' and associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair, to a badge of inferiority."
The bill maintains that professionalism is tied to European standards, and that grooming policies associated with those standards have unfairly targeted black workers and students.
Newsom called the bill "long overdue."
But many people were not aware of the issue until an incident last year at a New Jersey high school wrestling tournament when a referee made a wrestler cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit the match.
Attorney Ashley Marshall of Shipman & Goodwin LLP explored the issue of hairstyle biases earlier this year.
She noted that while courts have generally said employers can require employees of color to alter their hairstyles and that the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to hear a hair discrimination case, employers outside New York City and California would be wise to review their policies for racial bias.
She said a "blanket prohibition on a hairstyle, particularly one associated with a certain race, might open up an employer to a racial discrimination claim."
Marshall said while this is an evolving area of the law, employers should, nonetheless, "review their grooming policies and practices for racial and other types of stereotyping based on hairstyle choice in order to reduce their risk for liability."