The CROWN Act protects against discrimination based on hairstyles. Find out how to remain compliant.
The company being sued by a man who claims that his former employer violated a California law that forbids discrimination based on hairstyles and texture denies the man’s claims. The lawsuit is believed to be the first time that an employer has been accused of violating a state CROWN Act.
Encore Group (USA) LLC “has never banned or restricted protective hairstyles, including braids, locks, and twists,” the company said in its response to Jeffrey Thornton’s San Diego County lawsuit.
CROWN stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” CROWN Act laws, which several cities and states have adopted, address grooming policies in workplaces and schools that have a disparate impact on African-Americans.
CROWN lawsuit filed
Thornton filed legal action against Encore Group, LLC. in December 2021. The Illinois-based company is a global provider of event technology and production services at hotels and venues across 20 countries.
Thornton worked for Encore in Florida from 2016 until he was furloughed in March 2020 because of the pandemic. When he found out that the company had invited furloughed workers to re-apply for work with the company on the West Coast, he applied for a job as an Event Technical Supervisor.
The plaintiff claims the hiring manager said he was “fully qualified for the job” but would have to conform to certain dress and appearance policies. This included cutting his hair that he styled in “locs,” so that his hair was off his eyes, ears, and shoulders. In addition, Thornton said he was not allowed to tie his hair back.
The company said in its response that the policy is “in no way tied to the Plaintiff’s ethnicity or race.” It also noted that Thornton “never objected to Encore’s appearance guidelines or requested an exception.”
Encore said the company extended an “unconditional offer of employment” via an offer letter to start on Dec. 6, 2021, after it was apparent that Thornton had cut his hair to a length “fully compliant” with the policy. As of Feb. 21, Thornton has not accepted the job offer.
The company stated their policy was not tied to ethnicity or race.
In court papers, the company also noted that Thornton was allowed to “maintain his hairstyle, locks, throughout his employment” with the company from 2016 through his March 2020 furlough.
Encore also reportedly issued a statement declaring the situation a “miscommunication” over “standard grooming policies” and said it was reviewing the rules to avoid future miscommunications.
An Encore spokesperson provided a copy of the company’s responsive court filing but declined to give a copy of the statement.
What is the CROWN Act?
CROWN Acts forbid discrimination against employees based on hair texture or styles associated with race or national origin. Many of the laws specifically mention the following hairstyles as being legally protected:
- Bantu knots
State CROWN laws
California was the first state to adopt a law forbidding hair bias in the workplace. The Golden State’s CROWN Act took effect in January 2020. The law bans workplace policies that prohibit hairstyles “historically associated with race” as a type of racial discrimination.
In addition to California, the following twelve other states have passed CROWN Act legislation, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
Several cities have also enacted their own version of the CROWN Act. Earlier this year, several North Carolina cities enacted hair discrimination laws. Charlotte and Winston-Salem forbid discrimination based on hairstyle and texture starting Jan. 1, 2022. Wake County employers have similar prohibitions as of Feb. 1.
There is no federal version of the CROWN Act in operation. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a CROWN Act bill on Sept. 21, 2020 but the measure hasn’t received much consideration in the Senate.
The law protects several hairstyles, such as braids and cornrows.
The federal CROWN Act bans discrimination based on hairstyle or texture “if that hair texture or that hairstyle is commonly associated with a particular race or natural origin.” The bill specifically recognizes the following as hairstyles predominantly worn by Black men and women:
- Bantu knots
Federal regulators, however, have gone after employers suspected of engaging in hair bias. For example, in 2021, a Las Vegas security company settled charges by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that it violated federal law by refusing to allow a Black applicant to apply for a job because of her hairstyle.
The EEOC said in a statement that it investigated the allegations and found reasonable cause to believe that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, legal experts dispute that specific language in Title VII bans hair discrimination.
Incidents of alleged hair bias
CROWN Acts were prompted by stories of Black students and employees being denied employment or participation in school events because of their hairstyles.
In one highly publicized incident, an African-American high school wrestler in New Jersey had to cut his long dreadlocks right before a meet in order to participate. In another, a Black teenage volleyball player at a Portland, Oregon high school was told to cut the beads from her hair so that she could take part in the game.
Hair discrimination research
The incidents and research findings spurred beauty brand Dove, the National Urban League and several others joined forces to found the CROWN Coalition. The coalition has championed CROWN Act laws across the country.
Research shows if you’re a Black women, you are 50% more likely to be sent home because of your hair.
A 2019 research study by Dove found, among other things that Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair and that Black women’s hair is three times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.
In addition, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a co-sponsor of the federal CROWN Act, said in a statement that “Black students are disciplined at a rate four times higher than any other racial or ethnic group.”
“Research has found that 70% of all suspension disciplines are discretionary, many stemming from dress code violations that include hairstyles.”
Employer grooming policies
Legal experts say the California lawsuit and the speed with which cities and states adopt CROWN Act laws warning employers to examine their dress code and grooming policies to ensure compliance with the laws.
First, you should note that employers can enact grooming and dress standards for safety reasons. In addition, employers can require that employees adhere to reasonable dress and grooming standards related to a business necessity.
Employers can enforce grooming and dress standards for safety reasons and business necessity.
“Employers should review their dress code and grooming policies to ensure that they account for the mandates of the state Crown Acts,” said Jackson Lewis attorney Allison P. Dearington said in a statement emailed to Zenefits.
“Employers also want to train supervisors and managers on the state Crown Acts to not only ensure compliance with the same but to help supervisors and managers understand the history behind, and the importance of, the legislation.”
How to comply with the CROWN Act
Law firm Fisher Phillips has also offered several suggestions for employers who want to avoid running afoul of CROWN Act measures. Employers should:
- Review the wording of employee appearance policies and remove references to specifically prohibited hairstyles
- Apply policies equally to all employees regardless of race
- Educate employees on all policies, including the appearance policy
- Managers on any changes in the policies and on how to handle appearance policy infractions with sensitivity
- The individuals responsible for hiring to refrain from commenting on an applicant’s appearance
- Those responsible for hiring on appropriate interview questions and comments
- Consider instituting unconscious bias training
- Consider instituting escalating punishments for appearance policy infractions
However, employers shouldn’t go overboard when crafting appearance and grooming policies, Laura Fant, an attorney with Proskauer Rose LLP, told H.R. Dive. “Overly detailed” policies are a common error, she said. She explained that if long hair poses a safety hazard in the workplace, instead of listing specific hairstyles that pose such a risk, employers should simply state that hair must be shorter than a certain length or secured at all times.
What this means for you
The laws on hair bias are rapidly evolving. It is likely that many more states and municipalities will adopt CROWN Act legislation—federal legislation is also possible, Dearington said.
Multi-location employers should check local and state laws for anti-hair discrimination compliance requirements. Employers in locations that haven’t passed such legislation might want to consider whether it’s time to update their grooming and appearance policies to line up with CROWN legislation.