Saturday, April 5, 2014

Case: Banning Dreadlocks in the Workplace is Not Race Bias and Permitted

The case is EEOC vs. Catastrophe Management Solutions from the Southern District of Alabama.  Civil Action Number 13-00476-CB-M, decided on March 27, 2014. 


The EEOC alleged that Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) engaged in intentional racial discrimination by implementing a policy that prohibited employees from wearing dreadlocks and enforcing that policy against Chastity C. Jones.  CMS's policy states:  
All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines... hairstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable. . .
CMS interpreted this policy to prohibit dreadlocks, made an offer of employment to Jones on the condition that Jones cut off her dreadlocks, and then withdrew the offer when she declined to do so. 

The EEOC alleged that CMS’s application of its policy to prohibit dreadlocks constitutes an employment practice that discriminates on the basis of race and that the policy has deprived Jones of equal employment opportunities.

CMS requested the court to dismiss the case because the facts alleged in the complaint did not support a plausible claim for intentional discrimination.


May a company enforce a grooming policy denying an employee a hairstyle such as dreadlocks if dreadlocks have socio-cultural racial significance to a particular race, such as African-Americans? 

Short Answer

Yes.  Dreadlocks are not inevitable and immutable just because it is one reasonable result of hair texture, which is an immutable characteristic. No amount of expert testimony can change the fact that dreadlocks are a hairstyle and, therefore, not a protected class. 
Law & Analysis:  

The EEOC’s complaint asserted that CMS refused to hire Jones because she is black. The factual allegations in support of that claim are simple. CMS interpreted its grooming policy to prohibit dreadlocks. Because Jones refused to cut her dreadlocks, CMS rescinded its offer to hire her. CMS argued that a grooming policy based on a mutable characteristic, such as hairstyle, is not racially discriminatory. The EEOC responded that a company policy that prohibits dreadlocks is racially discriminatory because “the wearing of dreadlocks by Blacks has socio-cultural racial significance.” 

Employers’ grooming policies are outside the purview of Title VII. Willingham v. Macon Tel. Publ’g Co., 507 F.2d 1084 (5th Cir. 1975) addressed the discriminatory impact of a grooming policy in the context of a sex discrimination claim. Pointing out that the purpose of Title VII is to provide equal access to the job market, the court held:
Equal employment opportunity may be secured only when employers are barred from discriminating against employees on the basis of immutable characteristics, such as race and national origin.... [A] hiring policy that distinguishes on some . . . ground [other than sex], such as grooming codes or length of hair, is related more closely to the employer’s choice of how to run his business than to equality of employment opportunity.... Hair length is not immutable and in the situation of employer vis a vis employee enjoys no constitutional protection. If the employee objects to the grooming code he has the right to reject it by looking elsewhere for employment, or alternatively he may choose to subordinate his preference by accepting the code a long with the job.

Hairstyle is an easily changed characteristic, and, even if socioculturally associated with a particular race or nationality, is not an impermissible basis for distinctions in the application of employment practices by an employer.  Therefore, the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim for relief and the case was dismissed.  

Note to Employers:  

This case illustrates the EEOC's enthusiasm to take employer grooming policies to task.  I found the EEOC's desire to litigate this claim surprising in light of the well-established, long case history denying protection for mutable characteristics like hairstyle.