An African-American applicant for a customer service position with the claims processing company Catastrophe Management Services was told at her interview that she could not be hired as long as she kept her short dreadlocks hairstyle.
The CMS dress code says employees are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner projecting a professional and businesslike image, and that hairstyles should conform to that image. “No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable,” the policy states.
Because dreadlocks are primarily associated with African Americans – although some white people wear them as well – EEOC charged the company with racial discrimination.
A district court decision rejected EEOC’s complaint (AA, 6-30-14, P. 4) and the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. It also rejected EEOC’s proposed amended complaint that argued race “is a social construct and has no biological definition” and that “the concept of race is not limited to or defined by immutable characteristics.”
The Appeals Court took time to research and ultimately reject this argument, also noting EEOC’s position contradicted one it took in 2008 stating that dreadlocks fell outside federal legal protection.
“For employers, the primary take-away from this decision is that a race-neutral grooming policy appears to be blessed by some of the courts,” says attorney J. William Manuel of the law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. “However, the opinion does leave some wiggle room against a policy that would be based on black hair texture, as opposed to hairstyle.”