CROWN Update - What Employers Should Know About Hairstyle and Facial Hair Discrimination

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Earlier this year, both Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh enacted legislation protecting their workers from discrimination based on their hairstyle and “protective and cultural hair textures and hairstyles.” The respective laws are modeled after a national wave of “CROWN Act” bills (which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”) Legislation such as this enhances protection from discrimination in the workplace for people who wear dreadlocks, braids or other similar hairstyles.

Allegheny County’s CROWN Act specifically prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle. It defines this to mean “any characteristic, texture, form, or manner of wearing an individual’s hair if such characteristic, texture, form or manner is commonly associated with a particular race, national origin, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or religion.” The City of Pittsburgh’s CROWN Act similarly prohibits discrimination based on “hairstyles and protective and cultural hair textures and hairstyles.” More specifically, it protects “[h]airstyles and hair textures most commonly associated with race, including, but not limited to braids, cornrows, locs, Bantu knots, Afros, and twists.” The City of Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations also published guidance on hairstyle discrimination, which provides suggested best practices for employers.

As covered by HR Legalist, New Jersey has already enacted its own CROWN Act. At the state level, California, Colorado, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Washington have also enacted their own CROWN Acts. On March 6, 2021, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a bill to outlaw discrimination in the workplace based on hairstyles. All in all, variations of this bill have been introduced in 29 states. Moreover, at the federal level, senators have introduced legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of hair texture or hairstyle under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

Employers should also be aware that Pittsburgh’s CROWN Act offers protection from hairstyle discrimination, not necessarily facial hair. However, this does not mean that employers can always force employees to shave their beards or goatees. Employers must also consider whether the beard or goatee implicates the employee’s religion. When employees express their intent to wear a beard, goatee, or other styles of facial hair in order to observe their religious tenets, employers cannot discriminate against the employees’ grooming style. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against religious discrimination. The EEOC requires that employers offer reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with workplace policies or guidelines, as long as those accommodations would not create an undue hardship on the employer. Employers may invoke certain grooming and dress standards for safety reasons, especially for those who work with machinery. Companies should figure out how to be inclusive and accommodate employees without compromising the safety of the workplace.

Employers with employees in the states, counties, and cities that have adopted CROWN Acts should rework their dress, appearance, and grooming policies relating to hairstyles and facial hair. Employers with employees outside of these localities should also be aware that discriminating against employees based on their hairstyles may amount to racial discrimination even without a CROWN Act. All employers should therefore evaluate their dress, appearance, and grooming policies so that they focus on business reasons for adopting good-grooming habits rather than hair length, location, or style.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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