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eLABORate: EEOC Lawsuit Over Dreadlocks Sparks Criticism and Highlights Issues with Workplace Grooming Policies

October 09, 2013

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions, a Mobile, Alabama based insurance claims company, alleging the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American job applicant on the basis of race because she wore dreadlocks. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, Inc., Civil Action No. 1:13-cv-00476-CB-M) The lawsuit highlights the employment issues that can arise over workplace grooming policies, and also has sparked sharp criticism from the business community.

According to the EEOC's suit, after completing an online job application, Chastity Jones was among a group of applicants who were selected for a group interview on May 12, 2010. At the time of the interview, Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or "curllocks." Catastrophe's human resources staff conducted the group interview and offered Jones a position as a customer service representative.

Later that day, the human resources staff met with Jones to discuss her training schedule.   During that meeting, they realized that Jones's curled hair was in dreadlocks. The manager in charge told Jones that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to cut them off in order to obtain employment. Jones declined to cut her hair, and the manager immediately rescinded the job offer.

In the lawsuit, the EEOC argues that Catastrophe's ban on dreadlocks and the imposition of its grooming policy on Jones discriminates against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics. Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham District Office, stated, “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.

The business community has had harsh words for the EEOC’s position, arguing that dress and grooming policies such as Catastrophe’s, which require the employee to project “a professional and businesslike image," including hairstyle, are race neutral. A Wall Street Journal editorial on the suit is highly critical of the EEOC’s lawsuit, noting that there are non-African-Americans who wear dreadlocks, and chastising the EEOC for expanding federal resources “challenging perfectly legal business practices” at the expense of “individuals with legitimate claims of employment discrimination.”

Lawsuits over grooming policies and dress codes are nothing new, but more often arise in the context of Title VII claims of religious discrimination. These may occur when a workplace policy conflicts with a religious practice. Such practices might include the wearing of a beard by Muslim men, the wearing of a skullcap or yarmulke by Jewish men, the wearing of a veil or hijab by Muslim women, or the wearing of a turban by male practitioners of Sikh faith. The wearing of certain tattoos can be considered a religious practice under Title VII. Typical conflicts are policies against facial hair, or wearing attire that interferes with safety equipment or procedures.

In the context of religion, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or job applicant’s religious observances or practices unless it can demonstrate that doing so would constitute an undue hardship on the conduct of its business.   The reasonableness of an employer’s attempt to accommodate is a factual determination, made on a case-by-case basis.   Each case necessarily depends on its own facts and circumstances, and in a sense every case boils down to whether the employer has acted reasonably. However, in the lawsuit against Catastrophe, the EEOC is claiming that the insurance company’s policy that employees “be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle" specifically discriminates against African-Americans on the basis of race. The aggressive position of the EEOC on this issue is a troubling development for employers, many of which likely have grooming and dress code policies very similar to the defendant in this case.