Can employers ban the hiring of workers based on their hairstyles? According to a recent ruling by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is yes. In ruling on a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, refusing to hire someone with dreadlocks has been deemed legal.
The EEOC filed the lawsuit against the company Catastrophe Management Solutions in Mobile, Alabama on behalf of Chastity Jones, whose initial job offer was rescinded. According to the case file, Jeannie Wilson, a human resources manager for CMS, brought up Jones’ dreadlocks during a hiring meeting, telling her “they tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Wilson then told Jones the company would not bring her on board with dreadlocks, and terminated the job offer.
The EEOC lawsuit that followed claimed the measures violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII, claiming that dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic” that have been used throughout history to stereotype African-Americans as not well-groomed and even unfit for the workplace. Characterizing dreadlocks as unfit for a company grooming policy is inherently discriminatory, since the dreadlocks hairstyle is “physiologically and culturally associated” with African-Americans.
Yet the 11th court of appeals refuted this argument, ruling that CMS’s grooming policy wasn’t discriminatory since hairstyles, even though sometimes “culturally associated with race,” are not “immutable physical characteristics.” In short, changeable aspects of physical appearance “associated” with culture — but not physical inherent (like skin color) — are NOT protected by law and can be the basis of denied job offers.
Courts have typically interpreted title VII of the Civil Rights Act as simply protecting against “immutable characteristics” and not cultural practices. In Garcia v. Gloor, the courts ruled against the plaintiff, noting that firing someone for speaking Spanish at a workplace with an English-only policy did not violate Title VII.
Schools have also implemented policies banning dreadlocks have. This past summer, Attica Scott, whose daughter is a student at Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, tweeted the dress code distributed by the school, which specifically prohibited “dreadlocks, cornrows, and twists.”