Hairstyle Biases: What Employers Should Know About Hair and Race Discrimination

HR & Safety

When Chastity Jones, a black woman from Alabama, lost a job offer because she refused to cut her natural locs, she turned to the federal courts.
The company told Ms. Jones that her natural hairstyle violated the company’s grooming policy because locs “tend to get messy.”
In response, Jones sought the assistance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought a Title VII claim against the company alleging racial discrimination. That case was EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions.
The EEOC’s argument was that Jones was denied a job based on a racial stereotype that certain natural hairstyles worn by African-Americans and other black people are unprofessional.

The Court’s Response

The federal district court dismissed the EEOC’s claim on the ground that racial discrimination under Title VII must be based on immutable characteristics that a person cannot change, such as skin color.
According to the district court, the EEOC could not state a Title VII claim of racial discrimination because hairstyles can be changed.
After the Eleventh Circuit affirmed this decision, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a petition in 2018 for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Local Laws May Differ

Although Catastrophe Management Solutions is still good law, employers should remember that local anti-discrimination laws might differ from the circuit court ruling.
For instance, the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently issued guidance that banning or restricting hairstyles that are associated with African-American or other black people is a form of racial discrimination.

A blanket prohibition on a hairstyle, particularly one associated with a certain race, might open up an employer to a racial discrimination claim.

The enforcement guidance points out that there is often a misconception that natural hairstyles associated with black people are improper for formal settings.
To combat that misconception, the commission stated in the enforcement guidance that black people have "the right to maintain natural hair" including "locs."
Another example is that in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on "personal appearance."
That statute can be interpreted quite broadly to prohibit discrimination based on a person's choice of hairstyle.

Proceed with Caution

At this time, Connecticut courts have not weighed in on this issue, but Connecticut employers should still proceed with caution when making employment decisions based on a person's hairstyle.
A blanket prohibition on a hairstyle, particularly one associated with a certain race, might open up an employer to a racial discrimination claim.
In addition, banning a particular hairstyle might give rise to a claim of religious discrimination because certain hairstyles, like locs in some circumstances, might be associated with sincerely held religious beliefs.
The point is that there is much uncertainty surrounding these issues as this is an evolving area of the law. Therefore, employers should 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.

 About the author: Ashley L. Marshall is an associate at the law firm Shipman & Goodwin LLP in Hartford. This article was reprinted with permission from Shipman & Goodwin LLP.


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