Last year, the governor of California signed a bill into law that makes hairstyles a protected characteristic under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The law — also known as the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) — was the first of its kind to be passed in any state. Though federal law and California law already prohibited discrimination based on race before the CROWN Act was passed, they did not include hairstyles in the definition of race.
Now, the definition of race includes “protective hairstyles” such as braids, locks, and twists. This offers protection for hairstyles typically associated with African Americans, who previously had no recourse if they were discriminated against because of their hair. The law is meant to put an end to discriminatory “grooming” guidelines, which are used by some employers as a way to target minority groups.
Though not all employers with dress codes or grooming guidelines mean harm, they must still be cognizant of the disparate impact their policies may have on certain groups. For instance, a policy that requires men to keep their hair short could be seen as targeting groups who wear their hair long. However, there may be safety reasons that certain jobs require employees to dress or wear their hair in a certain way. This should also be considered when evaluating an employer’s practices.
Discrimination can take many forms, including adverse employment actions such as refusal to hire and termination. Even a written handbook policy that prohibits certain hairstyles could be found discriminatory on its face. Someone who believes that they were the victim of workplace discrimination based on their hairstyle may want to consult with a California plaintiff-side employment attorney.