This week’s question comes from Maya in San Francisco, who writes:
Q: Dear Chris, I interviewed for a receptionist position at a San Francisco company. The person interviewing me offered me the job, but said that I would need to conform to the company’s “grooming policy,” which states “hairstyle should reflect a business and/or professional image.” When I said that I would prefer not to cut my dreadlocks, she rescinded the job offer. I told her that I do not understand what how I wear my hair has to do with my ability to do the job and she told me that “dreadlocks are simply not professional.” Isn’t this discrimination?
A: Thank you for your question, Maya, and I’m sorry for the frustration you’ve experienced in the job market. It certainly does sound like your situation could qualify as unlawful discrimination, under not only the general anti-discrimination provisions of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) but also under the newly-enacted Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (the “C.R.O.W.N. Act”). When the C.R.O.W.N. Act was signed into law in July, California became the first state in the nation to legally protect people in workplaces, as well as K-12 public schools and charter schools, from discrimination specifically based on their natural hair.
Under FEHA, employers have long been prohibited from implementing dress or grooming policies that adversely impact one race more than another. By stating that “dreadlocks are simply not professional,” without any rational justification related to your ability to perform the job, the interviewer appeared to indicate that the company’s “grooming policy” establishes different employment standards based on race by prohibiting one of various natural and protective hair styles available to black employees. An arbitrary employment policy like this would likely be deemed contrary to FEHA, even before the C.R.O.W.N Act takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
However, any legal debate that might have been made previously on this issue will soon be rendered moot when the C.R.O.W.N. Act supercedes the more general existing anti-discrimination policies to expressly provide that hairstyles fall within the definition of race. The C.R.O.W.N. Act expands statutory protections by amending the FEHA and the California Education Code to define “race or ethnicity” as “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
When it takes effect next year, the C.R.O.W.N. Act will prohibit employers from enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies that restrict natural hair styles, such as Afros, braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks, that that disproportionately impact employees of color. The C.R.O.W.N Act expressly defines “protective hairstyles” as including, but not limited to, “braids, locks, and twists” and makes clear that traits historically associated with race, such as hair texture and hairstyle, should be protected from discrimination in the workplace and in schools. The C.R.O.W.N. Act recognizes that “[p]rofessionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”
You should note that an employment discrimination claim must be filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) within one year of the unlawful event or your rights to seek recovery may be barred. The DFEH’s phone number is 1-800-884-1684 and their web site is: http://www.dfeh.ca.gov/. In addition, it is always a good idea to contact a trial lawyer with knowledge of employment laws to discuss your case.