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Employment Discrimination And … Hair Styles?

In today’s atmosphere, it can seem as though every tiny detail can be grounds for a discrimination claims. Employers are often accused of mistreating people on grounds that are, by and large, more than a bit farfetched. However, some seemingly inane or mutable characteristics can be a very real barrier to employment, especially when race issues are thrown into the proverbial mix. Hairstyles are one of the most talked-about questions in employment discrimination jurisprudence in the last few years, and the debate may affect you if you are uninformed.

Policy Must Be Neutral

Many employers have dealt with issues related to the office dress code, of which hairstyles and facial hair are a part. Normally, if someone’s hair or facial hair is deemed to be unprofessional or worn in a manner inconsistent with the dress code, an employer has grounds to require it be changed. However, there are certain cases in which hair or other types of dress are closely related to a protected characteristic, meaning that potential problems await an employer who tries to regulate such things out of hand.

This type of discrimination, which affects people at point of impact (rather than being a facially discriminatory policy), is referred to as disparate impact discrimination. A company may enact a policy—for example, no beards on male employees—intending for it to be facially neutral, but in reality, it may affect certain minorities. This very situation may be discriminatory against Sikhs and other religious sects that have requirements for men to refrain from shaving. The employer may not have meant harm by the policy’s enactment, but screening out candidates with beards may implicate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (because religion is a protected class).

Women Of Color Disproportionately Affected

In recent years, the most common examples of these cases have been suits dealing with women of color’s natural hair, and the styles in which employers are allowing it to be worn. Scientifically, the texture of hair belonging to people of African ethnicities is noticeably different than that of Caucasian people, meaning that the styles required to keep their hair healthy are different than those traditionally worn by Caucasian women. However, employers have commonly held that these natural styles are somehow unprofessional or unkempt. This culminated in the case of Chastity Jones, whose employment offer was rescinded after she refused to cut off her locs. She brought suit and triumphed, but her employer won on appeal and the Supreme Court has refused to grant certiorari.

While as of this writing, no jurisprudence has supported the argument that such double standards are unjust, there is much to be said for the argument. It is important for employers to keep this case in mind, because even without a case on point, employees may make the argument that dress code policies that require Eurocentric hairstyles for women of color are discriminatory in their impact. African hair requires different treatment than Caucasian hair. For many women of African descent, they are forced to choose between their jobs and the health of their hair and scalp, which may seem to be a clear case of disparate impact. Only time will tell.

Call An Experienced Attorney

While employers have a right to ensure their staff look appropriate, the metric of ‘appropriate’ must not be defined by stereotypes, or Title VII may become a factor in the dispute. If you have questions about your rights under the Civil Rights Act, contacting an employment law attorney may be a good idea. A. Christopher Potts has years of experience standing up for employee rights. Contact the firm of Hitchcock & Potts today to speak with a knowledgeable employment discrimination lawyer.

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