If your dress/grooming policy discourages African-American employees from “displaying the natural texture” of their hair, as the EEOC puts it, you could be in trouble.

That’s the idea that emerges from a lawsuit the EEOC recently filed against an insurance company in Mobile, AL, that ordered a job applicant to remove her dreadlocks.

The woman took part in a group interview, and was offered a customer service position. Later, though, HR staff noticed that the woman’s short, curled hair was actually braided in dreadlocks, and told her she had to cut them off to comply with company grooming policy. She refused, and the employer rescinded the job offer, the EEOC said.

Racial discrimination alleged
She complained to the EEOC, which sued the company for racial discrimination on her behalf.

So what exactly did this employer do wrong, according to the EEOC? Well, insofar as the grooming policy sought to oblige employees to keep their hair neat, nothing. An EEOC spokesman said, “This litigation is not about policies that require employees to maintain their hair in a professional, neat, clean or conservative manner.”

Why did the EEOC sue, then? The spokesman said the lawsuit “focuses on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards for other races.” In other words, just because you happen to employ a bunch of white men with crew cuts, and you like that look, you can’t oblige every black applicant — or applicant of any other race or gender — to wear his or her hair in a crew cut.

The EEOC has gone to bat before for dreadlocked employees, notably to defend the employment rights of Rastafarian believers, who are obliged by their faith to wear their hair that way.

But the Mobile case elicited very specific guidance from the EEOC that employers may find useful. Here’s what another EEOC official said: “Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks. Hair grooming decisions and policies (and their implementation) have to take into consider­ation differing racial traits.”

Cite: EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions

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