Enactment of the CROWN Act Warrants Review of Employer Policies Governing Grooming and Appearance Standards

Written by: Mariel Smith, Esq.

Employers should take note that the CROWN Act is now law in several states and is being considered in many others.  The CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” is a law that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture. It is the first legislation passed at the state level in the U.S. to prohibit such discrimination.  First introduced in California in January 2019, the CROWN Act expanded the definition of race in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Education Code, to ensure protection in workplaces as well as in K-12 public and charter schools. The CROWN Act was passed unanimously in both Chambers in the California Legislature June 27, 2019 and was signed into law by Governor Newsom on July 3, 2019 and went into effect January 1, 2020.

New York was the second state to introduce the CROWN Act.  Governor Cuomo signed the CROWN Act into law on July 12, 2019 deeming the legislation effective immediately.

Quickly following suit, New Jersey became the third state to enact the CROWN Act. The New Jersey bill was introduced after a referee forced a high school wrestler to choose between cutting his dreadlocks or forfeiting a wrestling match.  Following an investigation into the incident by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR), the DCR entered into an agreement with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, resulting in the suspension of the referee for the next two wrestling seasons and requiring implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics across the state. Thereafter, the DCR issued its “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.” According to the DCR’s guidance, employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation “may not enforce grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hair styled into twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, fades, or other hairstyles closely associated with Black racial, cultural, and ethnic identity. Any policy specifically singling out such a hairstyle will generally constitute direct evidence of disparate treatment under the LAD and unlawful discrimination on the basis of race.”  The DCR advised that neutral policies that require a “professional” or “tidy” appearance will violate the LAD if enforced selectively and in a discriminatory manner.

On December 5, 2019 Senator Cory Booker and Congressman Cedric Richmond introduced The CROWN Act of 2019 in both chambers of U.S. Congress paving the way for federal protections.

The following states are also considering the Act and have either pre-filed, filed or formally stated an intent to introduce their own anti-hair discrimination bills: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  On the local level, Cincinnati, Ohio and Montgomery County, Maryland have also passed The CROWN Act.

The 2019 Dove Crown Study confirmed, among many other things, that corporate grooming policies unfairly impact Black women.  The study surveyed 2000 Women (1000 Black and 1000 White women), ages 25-64 throughout the United States. C.R.O.W.N Research Study (2019). Conducted by JOY Collective. Study conducted in the U.S. among 2000 (1000 Black and 1000 White) Women, Age 25  –64.  All data tested at 95% confidence level.

 What This Means for Employers

Employers should review their dress, grooming and other policies establishing appearance standards, and revise such policies, if needed, for compliance with the CROWN Act. Employers should also update their training modules to include training against racial harassment and discrimination based on protected hair traits historically associated with race. Effective training can help ensure that employers create and appropriately interpret neutral grooming standards that promote both company business interests and an inclusive workplace environment.

The Labor & Employment attorneys at HBS offer a wide variety of specialized training programs regarding anti-discrimination and diversity/inclusion, among other key employment topics.