Dreadlocks, afros, waves, braids, natural, long, straight or curly, applicants and employees appear for interviews and work with any number of hairstyles and textures. Employers – through grooming policies or otherwise – frequently seek to control, influence or restrict their employees to conform to Eurocentric hair standards. When an applicant or employee fails to follow the expected standards, they may lose a job offer or promotion, suffer discipline or termination or experience distain from co-workers, customers, students or others.
In 2019, California became the first state to address the risk of discrimination against Black and brown individuals based on characteristics such as hair texture and styles. The law, known as the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (“CROWN”) Act, amends the definition of race in state anti-discrimination statutes to include traits historically associated with race, including hair, texture and protective hairstyles, including but not limited to “braids, locs, and twists.” Since 2019, 18 states have adopted this legislation as well as many localities. Employers should be aware of this growing body of law.
Background Facts that Led to Passage of Laws
In an effort to comply with workplace expectations, many Black women use a variety of products, including hair relaxers, pressing combs, hair oils, moisturizers, lotions, leave-in conditioners and gels. A 2020 Harvard University study concluded some of these hair products contain parabens, phthalates and other chemicals that are known to be endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormones. This disruption is linked to serious health issues, including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and pregnancy-related complications. A 2022 National Institutes of Health study reported a higher risk of uterine cancer with women who reported using chemical hair straightening products compared to those who did not use these products. Aside from the serious side effects, natural or protective hairstyles (e.g. braids, locs, twists) preserve hair health. Protective styles shield hair from damage resulting from harsh weather and excessive manipulation. Essentially, a protective style keeps the ends of hair tucked away and encourages length retention, reduces tangles and knots and provides hair relief from constant pulling and combing that causes hair breakage.
The pressure to conform to Eurocentric hairstyling standards in American society is a genuine problem for Black people, especially Black women. A recent Michigan State University study found that 80% of Black women felt the need to straighten their hair to fit in at work. The CROWN Coalition reported two-thirds of black women feel obligated to straighten their hair before a job interview.
Hair-based discrimination is also prevalent in schools. In Mont Belvieu, Texas, a high school student named DeAndre Arnold, who had attended the same school since seventh grade, found his locs in sudden violation of a school policy that “Male students hair must not extend below the top of a t-shirt collar or be gathered or worn in a style that would allow the hair to extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes when let down.” For years, DeAndre used clips and rubber bands to be in compliance, but the school changed its rule and stopped allowing students to pin up their hair. He was subsequently suspended from school including his prom and high school graduation. Closer to home in Boston, Massachusetts, twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook made national headlines after their school punished them with detention and banned them from extracurricular activities and school events.
In a work-related incident, a recent LinkedIn post from a Black job candidate described how at the start of a job interview on Zoom, the recruiter unapologetically told him, “Your dreadlocks would not work for my client,” and terminated the interview. A LinkedIn search using hashtag #hairdiscrimination reveals more personal workplace experiences of employees or job candidates being adversely treated simply due to the hairstyles they choose to wear.
The evidence consistently demonstrates that hair-based discrimination is essentially race-based and creates substantial societal and economic harm to Black people who choose not to conform to an employer’s grooming standards, regardless of the health risk, costs and inherent unfairness of this standard.
Efforts to Pass Federal CROWN Act Legislation
Federal courts have varied in their holdings as to whether discrimination based on an individual’s natural hairstyle is illegal under the current federal anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII. That is because federal Civil Rights laws only focus on a person’s immutable – or unchangeable – characteristics, not appearance. In 2017, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found, “banning dreadlocks in the workplace under a race-neutral grooming policy—without more—does not constitute intentional race-based discrimination.” The ABA addressed the matter in two separate articles “Is Hair Discrimination Race Discrimination?” and “Good Hair/Bad Hair: A Discussion about the CROWN Act and Discrimination,” which also includes a recorded webinar on the subject.
Congress is slowly working on the issue. In 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R.2116 (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act of 2022), prohibiting racial discrimination based on hairstyle or hair texture in employment and educational settings. Currently, the bill is assigned to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and awaiting reintroduction into the 2023 legislative session.
The CROWN Coalition and State Action
The CROWN Coalition leads the Official Campaign of the CROWN Act and was founded by Dove, the National Urban League, Color of Change, and the Western Center for Law & Poverty. They have an information website: www.thecrownact.com. This Coalition is a significant driver in influencing state and local governments to extend current statutes to protect hair texture and protective styles in the workplace and public schools. Many states and municipalities across the United States either have pending legislation or have already passed their own protections, including the following jurisdictions with new CROWN Act state and local laws*:
- On the West Coast: Alaska, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, and large cities in Arizona
- In the Midwest: Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, and large cities in Michigan and Wisconsin.
- On the East Coast: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and large cities in Pennsylvania.
- In the South: Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia and many large cities in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.
There are currently no related bills pending in the New Hampshire Legislature this session.
Recommendations for Employers
Review your handbook critically for an inadvertent bias in your grooming policies and discuss recruiting practices to preventing hair bias. Employers located in states with CROWN Acts, or with employees working from such states, should also review and update their employee handbooks to reflect the proper definition of “race” to include the hair-based protections. Be proactive and work hard to make sure everyone feels welcome in your organization. This topic provides another opportunity to promote the importance of diversity and cultural sensitivity in the workplace. By providing educational opportunities, guidance, and leadership to your front-line managers and supervisors, you can help them understand the impact of discrimination and how to avoid it. Everyone should know your expectations for a workplace free from discrimination.