Hair Discrimination: The New Protected Class and What Employers Need to Know to Stay Ahead

As employers know, they must keep an eye on the ever-changing landscape of employment discrimination laws. One of the more recent developments in this arena is the passage of laws banning discrimination based on hairstyles or textures commonly associated with a person’s race or nationality.

In a 2016 study conducted by the Perception Institute, a study conducted through the Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the 2019 Dove CROWN Research Study conducted by JOY Collective in the United States, all reported that there is a bias against certain hairstyles or textures, predominantly hairstyles inherent to Black identities such as locs, braids, and natural curls. As a result of its findings, Dove co-founded the CROWN[1] Coalition with the goal of taking “tangible steps toward tackling the root cause of social injustice.”

To that end, Dove and the CROWN Coalition sponsored The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act in the state of California, which amended California’s Education Code and the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s definition of race to ban discrimination on traits historically associated with race, such as hairstyle and texture. The Act passed in California and since then, numerous states and localities have passed their own versions of CROWN Acts. Including Colorado, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington. Localities such as Broward County, Florida; Stockbridge, Georgia; Covington, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; Montgomery County, Maryland; New York City; Akron, Cincinnati, Newburgh Heights, and Toledo, Ohio; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have also passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on hair styles or textures that are commonly associated with a person’s race or nationality. The most recent locality to join this group is Durham, North Carolina, wherein the city council passed an ordinance on January 20, 2021, with the goal of protecting workers from discrimination on the basis of hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks, or Afros.

As a result, employers should be on the lookout for additional legislation in this area on the local, state, and federal levels. Some employers, such as United Parcel Service (UPS), have already begun to ease personal appearance guidelines. According to The Wall Street Journal, UPS is no longer banning workers from having facial hair and is allowing hairstyles such as Afros and braids. 

The Pittsburgh Commission on Human Rights (PghCHR) enforces the Pittsburgh CROWN Act, issues guidance for employers. Among the PghCHR’s guidance:

  • Employers should eliminate restrictions on hairstyles for employees and applicants where possible;
  • Employers should inform employees of their right to request reasonable accommodations for hairstyles of religious significant;
  • Employers should engage in the interactive process for individuals who request reasonable religious accommodations related to hairstyle; and
  • Employers should train managers and/or Human Resources personnel on anti-discrimination laws and company policies regarding hairstyle.

As more jurisdictions adopt CROWN Acts, employers should consider adopting policies and practices or revising current policies and practices to be consistent with these CROWN Acts. And as the PghCHR suggested, employers should also consider training managers and/or Human Resources personnel on the revised or new policies regarding hairstyle. For assistance in drafting or revising policies or training employees on these issues, please reach out to any of our labor and employment attorneys.

[1] When the CROWN Coalition was formed, CROWN stood for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.  The CROWN Coalition recently updated the name to Creating a Respectful and Open World with No Racism.

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Posted in CROWN Act, Discrimination, Human Resources

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HR Headaches is a blog for Human Resources professionals, business owners, and in-house counsel to get the latest news, analysis and tips in the area of labor and employment law. Every day there are new court decisions, agency interpretations, and regulations which affect the workplace, making it difficult, if not impossible, for many employers to keep current. HR Headaches is dedicated to providing information in a practical, no-nonsense manner to help employers avoid legal disputes and keep policies up to date.
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