House Approves Bill to Ban Hairstyle Discrimination in the Workplace

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​The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would protect employees from discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles associated with race and national origin. Here's what employers need to know as the bill moves to the Senate for consideration.

Combating Appearance Discrimination

The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act—HR 2116—passed the House in a 235-to-189 vote on March 18.

Racial and national origin discrimination can occur because of long-standing biases and stereotypes associated with hair texture and style, according to the bill. "For example, routinely, people of African descent are deprived of educational and employment opportunities because they are adorned with natural or protective hairstyles in which hair is tightly coiled or tightly curled, or worn in locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots or Afros," the bill states.

The proposed legislation would prohibit employers from firing, refusing to hire or otherwise discriminating against workers based on "hair texture or hairstyle, if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin."

This would be the first piece of federal legislation addressing appearance discrimination as it specifically relates to a worker's protected characteristic—in this case, race, noted Annie Reese, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. "Proponents of the CROWN Act believe that it will protect an important piece of racial identity," she said.

As the bill moves to the Senate, Reese recommended that employers review their appearance policies and prepare to remove references to prohibited hairstyles and train managers on the CROWN Act if it passes.

Corinn Jackson, an attorney with Littler in Seattle, said the Democrat-backed bill "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 overcome the filibuster

Lawmakers who oppose the bill argue that existing laws that ban race-based discrimination already apply. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from discrimination based on color, national origin, race, religion and sex.

Employers should note that some states already protect workers based on natural hair and hairstyle. California became the first state to pass a CROWN Act in 2019, and more states and cities followed suit.

"Employers should anticipate this state and local legislative trend to continue," Jackson said. "Employers across the country should consider revisiting and potentially updating grooming standards, policies and training practices."

Tips for Employers 

Jackson recommended that employers—particularly those in jurisdictions that already have laws against hair discrimination—review their appearance policies and ensure they are inclusive of racial, ethnic and cultural practices related to hair and hairstyles.

At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already challenged grooming and appearance policies for targeting certain hairstyles associated with race, and such policies are facing increased scrutiny from courts.

Camille Hamilton Pating, an attorney with Meyers Nave in Oakland, Calif., explained that employers may implement personnel policies that highlight acceptable grooming and appearance standards for employees. "However, employers should be mindful when drafting, reviewing and enforcing such policies because they must be nondiscriminatory and should not have a disproportionate impact on employees in a legally protected category."

Pating suggested that employers conduct periodic audits to assess whether a policy disparately impacts a group of people in a protected category. "Policies should not explicitly prohibit hairstyles that are historically associated with race, such as Afros, cornrows, braids, locs or twists," she said. "Employers should consider alternatives, such as hair ties, hairnets and safety equipment, when addressing health and safety concerns."

Additionally, Pating said, grooming and appearance policies should:

  • Be driven by legitimate, objective business needs, not subjective personal preferences.
  • State the reason for the standards, such as to protect the health and safety of employees.
  • Be equally and fairly implemented and should not disproportionately impact employees in a legally protected category.
  • Accommodate employees' religious beliefs, where appropriate.
  • Apply only to the workplace and should not attempt to regulate employees' off-duty appearance.

"Employers should also consider whether diversity or unconscious bias training is appropriate for their workplaces," Jackson said. Effective training can help ensure employers create and appropriately apply neutral grooming standards that promote company business interests and an inclusive work environment.

"Adopting nationwide practices consistent with the CROWN legislation can serve as both a proactive compliance step and a leap towards making the workplace more inclusive," she noted. 

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