This post was contributed by Lee Tankle, a new associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Law Group.
An Alabama insurance company is being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for allegedly discriminating against black job applicants. The EEOC alleges that the insurance company's grooming policy prohibiting dreadlocks is discriminatory toward African Americans.
In May 2010, Chastity Jones applied for a position and participated in a group interview with a Mobile, Alabama insurance claims company. Ms. Jones, an African-American, wore her blond hair in neat curls called "curllocks." Ms. Jones was offered a position as a customer service representative but later that day when she met with Human Resources to discuss her training schedule, the HR representative informed Ms. Jones that the company banned dreadlocks and she would need to cut them off in order to obtain employment. When Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair, her job offer was rescinded.
The EEOC argues that the insurance company's policies discriminate against African Americans based on physical and cultural characteristics in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to an EEOC attorney, the "litigation is not about policies that require employees to maintain their hair in a professional, neat, clean or conservative manner" but "focuses on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards for other races."
According to the District Director for the EEOC's Birmingham Office, "[h]air grooming decisions and policies (and their implementation) have to take into consideration differing racial traits, and cannot penalize blacks for grooming their hair in a manner that does not meet normative standards for other races." Some courts have suggested that employer policies banning "afro" hairstyles could be a race-based distinction in violation of Title VII.
This is not the first time the EEOC has brought suit over dreadlocks. In 2011, a Virginia-based transportation company paid $30,000 to settle an EEOC religious discrimination suit. The EEOC claimed the company violated Title VII when it refused to hire a Rastafarian because he wore his hair in dreadlocks. According to the EEOC, the applicant held the sincere religious belief that as a Rastafarian he could not and should not cut his hair in honor of Jah, the name given to the highest power in the Rastafarian faith.
Employers should remember that unless it would be an undue hardship for the employer's operation of a business, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices and beliefs. This could include allowing the wearing of certain head coverings like the Jewish yarmulke or Muslim headscarf or certain hairstyles or facial hair like Rastafarian dreadlocks or Sikh uncut hair and beard.
It is unclear what, if any, impact the federal government shut down will have on this matter. Please contact any of the McNees Labor & Employment attorneys if you have concerns that your grooming policies may be the target of a future discrimination allegations.