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California Passes CROWN Act to Protect Employee Natural Hairstyles

Published by and on October 23, 2019

Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act will be taking effect in California on January 1, 2020.

The CROWN Act (Senate Bill 188) amends California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act’s definition of race to include protection for “traits historically associated with one’s race, such as hair texture and protective hairstyles.” Texture and styles include afros, cornrows, braids, twists, Bantu knots, faces, and dreadlocks, as well as “the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” Proponents of the legislation view hair characteristics as a proxy for race, the most prominent of which is Black and African American employees who are disparately impacted by employment policies, such as grooming codes, that do not permit natural hair styles. The bill references the historical roots of workplace “professionalism” as defined by European features and mannerisms, which has caused the exclusion of people of color (particularly Black and African American individuals).

The trend in protection for natural hairstyles is likely to continue in other states. On July 12, 2019, New York passed a similar bill (Senate Bill 6209) and there has also a similar bill proposed in New Jersey (Senate Bill 3945).

Welter Insight

Employers should be aware of these new laws and update their grooming policies, if necessary. Compliant grooming policies should be race-neutral, inclusive, and not have a disproportionate impact on employees of any particular race. If bona fide prohibitions on long hair are necessary because they would cause a hazard in the workplace, employers should limit employees to a particular hair length without mentioning specific hair styles. Employers should ensure their employees, hiring managers, and supervisors are trained on the applicability of these new laws.

Complaints of hairstyle discrimination should be treated as a complaint of racial discrimination, triggering the same employer obligations to investigate and take proper remedial action, as well as the obligation not to retaliate against the complaining employee. There will likely be legislative developments in this area in other states as well, so employers should monitor further developments on this topic.

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