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New law protects ethnic hairstyles in the workplace

After completing your education or training, you landed a job interview for the perfect position. Getting this job would put you on track for achieving your goals, so you prepared and put your best foot forward. The hiring manager seemed impressed and offered you the job on one condition: that you change your hairstyle.

If your new employer drew your attention to the employee handbook's grooming and appearance policy, you may have seen that the policy specifically forbids the kind of hairstyle you wear. On the other hand, the company may simply require hair that is "neat and well-kept," which the employer implied did not describe your hair. If you are a person of color, you may be interested to know that California recently passed a law protecting your right to wear your hair in a style that expresses your culture.

Hair discrimination or racial discrimination?

An employer is within his or her rights to expect an employee to dress neatly and in a way that conveys professionalism. Hair styles may also be a safety issues, such as if your job requires you to work around machinery with moving parts. However, an employer may not deny you a job for which you are qualified simply because your hairstyle is associated with a particular protected group, for example:

  • An Afro or natural style
  • Twists
  • Dreadlocks, also called locks or locs
  • Bantu knots
  • Cornrows
  • Head coverings associated with religious beliefs

Federal court may not protect you if an employer refuses to hire you or promote you, or fires you because of your hair. However, California's new CROWN Act points out that an employer who expects you to appear dressed and groomed professionally may be thinking only in European terms of professionalism. You should not have to alter your appearance to match that racist definition.

Reacting to the new law

To comply with the CROWN Act, California employers should review their policies and handbooks to ensure their dress and grooming standards are not discriminatory. If you feel a potential employer denied you an opportunity based on his or her personal preference or unfairly implemented a grooming policy because of your race, you may have reason to seek legal advice.

Pursuing a civil case based on employment discrimination is complex and challenging. You will want an advocate who has the resources and determination to investigate your claims and fight for your rights.

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