Workplaces are becoming more accommodating, especially when it comes to fashion. Every day seems like casual Friday in Silicon Valley. And many companies pride themselves on not only allowing but encouraging their employees to express themselves freely in their fashion choices.
But what about more conservative employers? And what about company grooming policies, like bans on dreadlocks, which appear to have a racial motivation? Can banning dreadlocks constitute racial discrimination?
According to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, it doesn't. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed a lawsuit against Catastrophe Management Solutions on behalf of a woman who was denied a job because of her dreadlocks. Chastity Jones claims she interviewed with the Mobile, Alabama insurance claims processor, and was offered a job as a customer service representative, with one condition: that she cut her dreadlocks off. When she refused, Catastrophe rescinded the job offer.
The EEOC argued the "prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent." And the company's HR manager's assertion that dreadlocks "tend to get messy" is based on an understanding of race as "a social construct" that "has no biological definition."
But the court disagreed. It concluded Catastrophe's grooming policy, which required employees to present themselves "in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," is race-neutral, adding, "As far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race."
The court is correct that most jurisdictions side with employers on dress and grooming codes, so long as they equally apply to all races. And Title IX's prohibition on race-based employment discrimination is generally interpreted to mean discrimination based on skin color and other "immutable traits." So as long as a company policy doesn't address race specifically and it applies to all employees, courts will normally side with employers, even if they ban certain hairstyles.
If you've been denied a job or fired because of a racially-motivated company policy, you should contact an experienced employment or civil rights attorney in your area.