Volume 2, Issue 12 – June 30th, 2014
A federal district court has rebuffed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s contention that an employer’s ban on the dreadlocks hairstyle was racially discriminatory.
The case arose when an employer rejected a job applicant with the hairstyle.
The firm had established a policy that employee “hairstyles should reflect a business/ professional image” and also banned what it termed “excessive hairstyles or unusual colors.”
The employer did extend a job offer, conditioned on the applicant removing the offending hairstyle. After the applicant refused to do so and the offer of employment was withdrawn, EEOC filed suit, charging that prohibiting dreadlocks was intended to discriminate on the basis of race.
Although some Whites also wear the same hairstyle, EEOC asserted “that Blacks are primary wearers of dreadlocks” and that racial discrimination protection extends to “both physical and cultural characteristics, even when those cultural characteristics are not unique to a particular group.”
The court didn’t buy it. Citing previous decisions finding employer bans on hairstyles were nondiscriminatory, the court said a “hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic,” instead of a racial characteristic than cannot be changed.
The court also rejected EEOC’s arguments regarding socio-cultural racial significance of dreadlocks, noting that culture and race are different concepts and that federal law “does not protect against discrimination based on traits, even a trait that has socio-cultural racial significance.”
While this decision reinforces an employer’s right to set grooming policies, since then the EEOC has expanded protections for employees’ appearance based on religion. Dreadlocks are associated with the Rastafarian religion, and attorneys warn a similar suit in the future may succeed if the case asserts religious discrimination over the hairstyle.