On March 18, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act. The CROWN Act would prohibit workplace discrimination based on a person’s hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin.

While the Biden administration supports the bill, the CROWN Act faces an uphill climb in the current Senate. The House voted mostly along party lines with only 14 Republicans voting in favor of the bill.  At least 10 Senate Republicans would need to vote for the CROWN Act to avoid a filibuster and ensure its passage.

But regardless of the fate of the federal legislation, since California became the first state to pass a CROWN Act in 2019, multiple states and localities have followed suit.  Employers doing business in states with operative CROWN laws—and employers everywhere seeking to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all their employees—should both understand the legal framework surrounding hair discrimination and consider what next steps make sense for their organization.

Race or National Origin Discrimination on the Basis of Hairstyle and Texture

In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) became the first jurisdiction to provide guidance on how dress codes, grooming policies, and other general hiring and employment practices can perpetuate race and national origin discrimination.  In its Legal Enforcement Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair, the NYCCHR clarified that the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. In this guidance, the NYCCHR explains that negative sentiments towards Black hairstyles and textures date back to times of slavery. For example, “white slave traders initially described African hair and locs as ‘dreadful,’ which led to the commonly-used term ‘dreadlocks.’” The NYCCHR provided examples of how, over time, such sentiments crept into many modern workplace settings and shaped the parameters of dress and grooming policies, as well as other general employment practices. The NYCCHR emphasized that these policies can be preferential towards white and European beauty standards and require Black individuals with certain hairstyles and textures to uncomfortably conform with those standards for the sake of their employment.

California lawmakers echoed the NYCCHR on this issue when on July 3, 2019, California became the first state to enact a CROWN Act. This legislation expanded the definition of “race” under its state anti-discrimination law to include both hair texture and protective hairstyles that are closely associated with race. More specifically, the California CROWN Act bars dress and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including Afros, braids, twists, and locs, because these policies have a disparate impact on Black applicants and employees. The California Legislature explained that U.S. laws and social norms have historically associated “blackness” with “unprofessionalism,” be that explicitly or implicitly. Legislators emphasized that in workplace settings, “professionalism” can become a guise for European features and mannerisms, and grooming standards can serve as a deceptive barrier to employment opportunities for Black individuals who do not fit that mold.

Black women can be particularly impacted by certain dress codes and grooming policies. Indeed, one recent study found that Black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work, and Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home or know of a Black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair. Overall, the study found that Black women fear scrutiny and discrimination when expressing their natural hair in the workplace.

Several recent cases have been brought under both the CROWN Act and Title VII, with applicants and employees alleging discrimination based on their hair texture or hairstyles.

The CROWN Act at the Federal Level

It is against this backdrop that U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) introduced the CROWN Act in the U.S. House on March 19, 2021. The purpose of the CROWN Act is to protect people of Black or African descent from routine—though often covert—barriers to employment opportunities based on “longstanding racial and national origin biases and stereotypes associated with hair texture and style.”

Thus, the CROWN Act, as passed by the House, expressly prohibits employment discrimination against an individual “based on the individual’s hair texture or hairstyle, if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin (including a hairstyle in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros).” If enacted, the federal CROWN Act would be treated as if it were incorporated in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for enforcement purposes.

Although the U.S. House passed the CROWN Act last month, it is unclear whether the Senate will do the same.  But of importance, even if the CROWN Act does not survive the Senate, the trend towards protecting hairstyles and textures associated with a particular race or national origin in the workplace shows no signs of stopping at the state and local level.

The CROWN Act at the State and Local Level

While the federal CROWN Act has inched its way across the congressional floor, states and localities across the country have swiftly enacted legislation banning race or national origin discrimination on the basis of hairstyle and texture.

With California leading the charge, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have recently passed state/territory-level hair discrimination laws.  The Illinois, Massachusetts, and Tennessee legislatures have also passed hair discrimination bills, which will soon be sent to their respective governors for signature.  Similar legislation is pending in numerous other states/territories, including Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Tennessee, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Localities in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have also passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle and texture.

Next Steps

Dress codes and grooming standards will likely remain common fixtures in the workplace. But evolving these policies can help employers not just with legal compliance, but also with making their workplaces more inclusive. The rise of state and local CROWN Acts provides organizations with an opportunity to be more proactive in detecting and preventing bias against race and traits associated with race, including hair texture and natural hairstyles.

To that end, employers should consider the following next steps:

  • Reviewing and updating dress codes and grooming policies to ensure that they are both (1) clearly connected to the company’s business interests and (2) inclusive of hair texture and hairstyles connected to racial and ethnic identity, as well as religion and gender identity.
  • Employers may require professional appearance in the workplace but should refrain from completely banning or restricting particular hairstyles. For instance, employers should avoid instituting policies:
    • specifically prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades, which are styles commonly “associated with Black people.”
    • requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair (i.e., through the use of chemicals or heat).
    • banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros.
    • restricting employees from holding specific roles (such as customer-facing positions) based on an employee’s or applicant’s hairstyle.
  • In the case of health and safety concerns, employers should aim to implement non-discriminatory measures (such as hairnets or hair ties) and should identify options that will accommodate various hair textures and styles. Employers should ensure that dress codes and grooming policies are applied consistently.
  • Training employees, especially supervisors, managers, and anyone who makes hiring decisions, on the organization’s dress and grooming policies, as well as their EEO policies.
  • Implementing diversity or unconscious bias training and engaging in efforts to create and support a more inclusive workplace environment.

As lawmakers continue to zero in on bias and discrimination in workplace policies and practices, the movement toward embracing inclusion, equity, and diversity (IE&D) in the workplace also shows no signs of stopping. Employers should keep a close eye on legislative and regulatory developments across the country to ensure compliance and consider how proactively auditing and updating policies, practices, and training can advance their IE&D efforts.

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