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Can you ban certain hairstyles in the workplace?

A recent lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) failed to broaden the definition of racial discrimination to include guidelines employers may have about hairstyles, and particularly dreadlocks.  

The case was filed by the agency on Chastity Jones, an African-American applicant whose job offer was rescinded by Catastrophe Management Solutions after she refused to cut off her dreadlocks. According to the lawsuit, the claims processing company asked Jones, who was hired as a customer service representative, to cut her dreadlocks in order to meet the standards outlined in the company’s grooming policy, which states that “All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines. . . . No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.”

After she declined to cut her hair, the company rescinded its job offer.

In the lawsuit, the EEOC claimed Catastrophe’s no-dreadlocks policy amounted to race discrimination because it targeted African-Americans, but the company argued its policy was race-neutral, as it would require anyone to cut their dreadlocks, regardless of their race or ethnic background.

A federal district court sided with Catastrophe. It said that “Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] prohibits discrimination on the basis of immutable [i.e., unchanging] characteristics, such as race, color, or national origin.” The court added that “hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.”

The EEOC subsequently appealed, arguing that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of the immutable trait of race and that targeting dreadlocks can be a form of racial stereotyping.However, the appeals court also shot down that argument, suggesting that it was a stretch for the EEOC to expand the definition of race discrimination in the manner it was attempting to.

Reflecting on the decision, employment law attorney Tracey E. Diamond noted that for the most part, courts will back your dress/grooming policies, provided they are race-neutral. However, she warns that employers are still required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ – and even job candidates’ – sincere religious beliefs and provide accommodations for such beliefs, as long as they don’t create an undue hardship on company operations.

 

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