Previously we told you that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was suing an Alabama insurance company for allegedly discriminating against African American job applicants because the company’s grooming policy prohibited dreadlocks. Last week, an Alabama federal judge dismissed the EEOC’s intentional race discrimination claim that was brought against Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS).
As you may recall, CMS made a conditional offer of employment to an African-American applicant provided that the applicant cut off her dreadlocks. CMS had a policy that stated "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…." When the applicant refused to cut her dreadlocks, CMS withdrew the offer. The EEOC alleged that CMS’s policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the policy was racially discriminatory and that CMS refused to hire the applicant because she was black.
Judge Charles R. Butler, Jr. concluded that the EEOC failed to allege sufficient facts to support a plausible claim of intentional discrimination, finding that one’s grooming habits are not immutable characteristics (such as sex or race) and are thus not protected by Title VII. The EEOC argued that the definition of race should encompass both physical and cultural characteristics. Judge Butler rejected this argument and cited numerous cases finding that hairstyles like dreadlocks and cornrows are not immutable characteristics unique to a particular race or group and are thus not protected by Title VII. Per Judge Butler, "A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic." However, Judge Butler made it clear that if the EEOC alleged that the policy was applied in a discriminatory manner (if for example the policy was only applied to African American applicants and employees), the EEOC could move forward with its claim. Employers with grooming policies should remember it is important that they enforce them equally and consistently across the board.
Recall that the applicant here never claimed she was wearing her dreadlocks because it was consistent with her religious beliefs. Had she made the claim, CMS likely would have had to allow the applicant to keep her dreadlocks because employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship for the employer’s business operations.
Employee hairstyles continue to be a hot topic. For example, the United States Army recently released new regulations banning a number of hairstyles, prompting claims of race discrimination and the ire of many enlisted members. Stay tuned as the Alabama case is not the first "dreadlocks" case we have seen and it is likely not the last.