New California Law Banning Hair Discrimination Based on Natural Hair

By Jennifer Jacobus PHRca, SHRM-CP SDEA Director of HR Services.

On July 3, SB 188, known as the CROWN Act, was signed into law.  This bill is intended to “create a respectful and open workplace for natural hair” in order to “foster inclusion and diversity”.  Los Angeles senator, Holly Mitchell, who introduced the bill said the bill is meant to protect “black employees and applicants denied employment or promotion—even termination—because of the way they choose to wear their hair”.

Those of us familiar with the regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) know that it is illegal to base employment-related decisions on (amongst other things) an employee’s or applicant’s race.  Under FEHA, race in meant to include traits historically associated with one’s race, including hairstyles. 

In an EEOC case, EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, a black female’s job offer was rescinded after she met the HR Manager and was told that she could not be employed with her dreadlocks (that she refused to cut) because, according to the HR Manager, “they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.”  (cue the head-shaking).

In the course of handbook reviews conducted by SDEA, we often come across policies that address dress codes and grooming standards.  It is not uncommon to come across a policy that states that “extreme hair styles” or “unnatural color” is not permitted.  This can be a very subjective statement.

Employers should go back and review their policies (both written and applied) to make sure that any dress code policies, grooming policies and policies addressing appearance should be directly related to the essential functions of the employee’s job.  The focus should be on objective criteria; state the reasons for the requirements/standards (think safety); be enforced equally and not impact one class of employees over another; accommodate religion; and apply only to the workplace, not an employee’s off-duty appearance.

While employers are permitted to regulate employee appearance, these policies cannot discriminate against employees based on protected classes which include race, religion, sex, age and religion, amongst others. 

This bill applies to all companies that employ five or more employees (public and private) and public schools but excludes religious and non-profit organizations.

If you have any further questions or need to update your employee handbook, don’t wait. Give us a call 858.505.0024 or click on the button below.

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