Certain hairstyles are traditionally associated with a certain race or ethnicity. In particular, hairstyles like cornrows, dreadlocks, and afros are associated with African American culture, and many individuals who wear these styles take great pride in using their hair to express their cultural identity and heritage.
When a hairstyle is linked to a cultural identity, the line between self-expression and workplace grooming standards can become blurred. Recently, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) decision, and found that hairstyles were not protected under the law.
The case involved a black woman named Chastity Jones. Jones had applied for a customer service position in Mobile, Alabama. When she first applied, Jones was told that she had gotten the job and would be hired as soon as her background check cleared. However, the employer rescinded its offer and eventually told Jones that they could not hire her because she wore her hair in dreadlocks. The company believed that Jones’ hair looked unprofessional, which made her unsuitable for a customer service position.
After she was turned down for the position, the EEOC took up her case and filed an employment discrimination lawsuit, alleging that Jones was discriminated against due to her race in violation of Section VII of the Civil Rights Act. Eventually, Jones’ case was heard before the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.
The 11th Circuit found that the employer did not violate Title VII because the law does not protect individual expression. The court found that the point of the law was to protect people from discrimination based on immutable or unchangeable characteristics like race or gender. While Jones’ hairstyle may have been an expression of her racial identity and culturally associated with people of African descent, it was not a characteristic that was out of her control.
While the court found that Jones’ hairstyle was not a basis for a racial discrimination claim, the court also noted that other situations may be different. For example, the court recalled a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals case which found in favor of a woman who had been denied a promotion because she wore her hair in a natural afro style. In contrast to people who have faced negative employment actions for wearing a hairstyle like cornrows or dreadlocks, the court in that case found that the woman had been discriminated against for wearing her hair in its natural state. Since the texture and curl of her hair is something that she was born with and could not change, the court found that the employer had violated federal law.
Employers have the right to create grooming policies for their employees so long as they do not discriminate against gender or race. Even though hairstyles like dreadlocks or cornrows are predominantly worn by African Americans, a policy which prohibits these styles for all employees regardless of race or gender is generally allowed.
However, when an employer’s dress or grooming policy singles out or disproportionately affects one race, religion, gender, or ethnicity, employees who face negative employment may be able to file a discrimination lawsuit.