Employers Can Ban Dreadlocks in the Workplace

Does Title VII protect hairstyles culturally associated with race?

In September, a federal appeals court ruled that an employer has a right to enforce a dress and grooming policy that prohibits employees from wearing their hair in dreadlocks. The case was initially brought in 2013 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against an insurance claims processing company in Mobile, Alabama that rescinded a job offer to a black woman who refused to cut her dreadlocks.

The Company Dress Code

The woman applied as a customer service representative with the company in 2010. After being hired, she was told by the human resources manager that the dreadlocks needed to be cut since the company’s dress and grooming policy requires employees to project a “professional and businesslike image.” The HR manager reportedly told the woman that dreadlocks “tend to get messy.” The woman refused to cut her dreads, and the company withdrew its offer.

The EEOC argued that banning dreadlocks in the workplace was racial discrimination because the hairstyle is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the EEOC’s reasoning that race is a social construct that does not have a biological definition, however.

In reaching its decision, the appellate court relied on previous rulings that racial discrimination is based on skin color and other “immutable traits” and does not encompass cultural characteristics associated with race.

“Every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race,” wrote Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan.

While the judge acknowledged there have been calls to expand the interpretation of the law, and that definitions of understandings of race can change over time, he opined that this is a debate better left to the democratic process, not the courts.

The Takeaway

In short, this ruling affirms that employers who enforce a race-neutral grooming policy are not in violation of Title VII. Nonetheless, federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race. For this reason, if you believe you have been the victim of employment discrimination, you should engage the services an experienced employment law attorney.