By Demi Hanes, Trüpp.

“The CROWN Coalition is dedicated to the advancement of anti-discrimination legislation across the United States, starting with the state of California, and now in the states of New York and New Jersey.  The Coalition and its members believe that diversity and inclusion are key drivers of success across all industries and sectors.” – The Crown Act website

Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, otherwise known as the CROWN Act, has been gaining attention in many states recently. The CROWN Act seeks to expand the legal definition of race as a protected class to include traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and hairstyles. Starting with California and New York, more states and localities are passing laws to ban hairstyle discrimination in the workplace. But why has this become necessary and what does it mean for employers?

1. What is hair discrimination?

Hair discrimination is a bias against certain hair types that treat individuals with this characteristic unfairly. Current workplace dress code and hygiene policies may have wording that contains bias by requiring employees to appear “professional,” including prohibiting afros, braids, twists, cornrows, dreadlocks, and other hairstyles or natural hair types historically associated with race.

2. Why has the topic of hair discrimination become so important?

According to an LA Times article, California Governor Gavin Newsom said, “the need for the protection entered the national political consciousness in December when a referee forced a black wrestler for a New Jersey high school to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match.” These biases were also found in a study done by Dove called The CROWN Research Study that surveyed 2,000 women in professional office settings. Here’s what the study found:

  • 80% of black women agree, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”
  • Black women are 1.5x more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair.
  • Black women’s hair is 3.4x more likely to be perceived as unprofessional.
  • Black Women are more policed in the workplace, feel their hair is targeted, and are consistently rated as less ready for job performance.

Esi Eggleston Bracey, EVP & COO NA Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever (the parent company of Dove), spoke about these issues with the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in 2018. Her talk received the attention of California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D), whose team then decided to draft the legislation known as the CROWN Act. Mitchell stated in an interview, “It’s not just about hair. It’s about choice and about people being empowered to be who they are culturally in the workplace.”

3. What does the CROWN Act do?

The CROWN Act legally protects people in workplaces from discrimination based on their natural hair. The law specifically prohibits the enforcement of any grooming or dress code policies that will disproportionately affect people of color and adds natural hair as a protected characteristic associated with race as a protected class; this includes bans on certain styles like Afros, braids, twists, cornrows, and dreadlocks. The consequences of breaking this law, in New Jersey, for example, are the same as outlined in the existing Law Against Discrimination:

  • Equitable relief
  • Recovery for economic losses
  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages, which may be capped
  • Attorney fees

4. Which states have passed the CROWN Act legislation?

California was the first state to sign the CROWN Act into law, followed by New York and New Jersey. In addition, Cincinnati and Toledo, OH, and Montgomery County, MD have passed this legislation in their jurisdictions. Legal professionals anticipate this trend will continue to grow rapidly through 2020, with more states approving legislation adopting these new principles, and potentially becoming federal law. Some states are already considering similar legislation, including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

On December 5th, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA) introduced The CROWN Act of 2019 in both chambers of U.S. Congress paving the way for federal protections. Proactive employers in states that have not yet passed hair discrimination legislation may want to consider adjusting policies now to ensure they are compliant if their states follow the trend.

5. What do employers need to do to comply with the CROWN Act?

Review your dress code and hygiene policies. Stay ahead of the curve by updating your employee handbook now, even if you are not yet legally required to do so. Managers and supervisors will need additional training to understand these new regulations and avoid this type of discrimination. Offer your employees training on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, along with your harassment and discrimination training programs. Below are just a few examples of what to include and what to avoid in your employee handbook.

What to avoid in your hygiene/dress code policies:
  • Requirements about shaving
  • Restrictions on hair length or styles
  • Requirements that are different for men and women
What to include in your hygiene/dress code policies:
  • Restrictions that are necessary to maintain safety
  • Appropriate clothing for a professional work environment
  • Restrictions on clothing that display offensive content
  • Process for how to request an accommodation
  • Where to go with questions about these policies
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