What Employers Should Know About Hair and Race Discrimination
Amy McAndrew |
Do you remember Andrew Johnson, the Buena Regional High School wrestler who was forced by a referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match? The New Jersey state legislature currently is considering a bill that would eliminate the type of discrimination faced by Johnson. If the legislation passes, New Jersey would become the third state – behind New York and California – to amend their laws to prohibit discrimination against hair textures or styles historically associated with race.
As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states, race discrimination involves treating an individual unfavorably because the individual is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race, including hair texture. Laws such as those passed in California and New York recognize this and are intended to combat prejudicial attitudes toward black hair and hairstyles associated with race, such as dreadlocks, braids, twists or Afros. Employers who prohibit employees from having or displaying such hairstyles in the workplace may face legal liability and be forced to change their policies and practices.
Given the position of the EEOC and these legislative developments in California and New York, employers in all jurisdictions would be well advised to reexamine their hiring and employment policies and practices. In particular, employers should consider taking the following steps:
- Review and update antidiscrimination and dress code/grooming/appearance policies to ensure that they appropriately address hair textures and hairstyles associated with race. Any unnecessary restrictions against hairstyles traditionally associated with race should be eliminated.
- Make sure that dress code, grooming and/or appearance policies are driven by legitimate business needs, such as health and safety, and not by subjective personal preferences. When addressing health and safety concerns, consider alternatives to an outright ban, such as hair ties, hairnets, head coverings or other safety equipment.
- Provide training for hiring and other managers to ensure that job applicants and employees are not unfavorably rated or disciplined because of hairstyles associated with race. As part of that training, provide guidance that facially neutral policies should not be applied in a discriminatory manner. For example, managers should not enforce a grooming policy banning “extreme hairstyles” only against African American employees.
- Implement or update anti-bias, diversity and inclusion training programs to reinforce nondiscriminatory concepts of “professional” appearance and counter existing biases or stereotypes surrounding hairstyles in the workplace. In addition to creating a more inclusive workplace culture, such training likely will mitigate liability risks.
- Keep in mind that policies around dress and appearance also must accommodate employees’ religious beliefs, where appropriate.
If your business is considering policies and/or training in these areas, consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel to develop policies and practices that will address your business needs while protecting you against possible discrimination claims. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance.
About the Author
Amy McAndrew is MEA’s Director of Member Legal Services and has over twenty years of experience as a labor and employment attorney.