The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that a company’s grooming policy prohibiting dreadlocks was not racial discrimination under federal employment law.
In EEOC v. Castastophe Management Solutions, a female job seeker responded to an ad for a sales job. The applicant was qualified and interviewed well. However, as a condition to hiring her, the business requested that she change her hairstyle from dreadlocks to a “professional-looking” haircut because part of her job duties would be selling the business to the public. The job seeker refused and contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stating that the business discriminated against her on the basis of her race. T he EEOC then brought a claim for intentional racial discrimination.
The EEOC argued that prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent. In other words, the EEOC argued that a ban on dreadlocks in the workplace is indistinguishable from a ban on African-Americans in the workplace.
The business argued that its grooming policies are not associated with race and that the EEOC was over-reaching in its interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.
The Court agreed with the company, stating that Title VII protects discrimination based upon “immutable traits” like skin color, but reading Title VII to include mutable characteristics, such as hairstyles, would be beyond the scope of the law’s intent. While the court acknowledged that “cultural characteristics” can change over time, a change in the Title VII to cover “cultural characteristics” can only come from the legislature.
That is not to say that discrimination based on hairstyle is always permissible. One can envision a scenario where hairstyle can be used as a pretext for discrimination based upon race, and Title VII addresses those types of employment decisions. However, that wasn’t the argument put forth by the EEOC, which seemed to strive for an expansion of Title VII not originally contemplated when it passed.
This decision re-affirms what racial discrimination is and is not under Title VII, and draws a bright line as to what are permissible policies and what are discriminatory policies so businesses can be guided accordingly.
Known for his street-smart advice & proactive advocacy. Sean works with senior retired judges, senior officials and leading attorneys in contentious and transactional matters. First non-Korean lawyer (NY) to work at Korean Courts and one of the first non-Korean law professors. Rated a top lawyer by major rating agencies.
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