A federal appeals court has ruled that a woman rejected from a job offer because she refused to cut her dreadlocks could not proceed with a race discrimination claim against the employer under Title VII.
The events surrounding the case are not disputed. A black woman applied for a customer service position in an Alabama insurance claims processing company. The woman was hired pending standard background checks. The job offer also carried the caveat that the applicant change her hair style from dreadlocks.
According to testimony, the HR manager allegedly said that dreadlocks “tend to get messy” and violate the organization’s race-neutral grooming policy. The policy stated that “hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit on the woman’s behalf, alleging that the organization violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The EEOC argued that a prohibition on dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of hairstyle “culturally associated with people of African descent.”
The court disagreed and ruled in favor of the organization against the job applicant.
However, the court noted that there are certain instances where an employer’s decision based on an individual’s hair could be considered race discrimination under Title VII. It pointed out that any decision tied to an immutable characteristic could easily be considered conduct in violation of federal law.
As this decision shows, courts may back dress/grooming policies, as long as they’re considered race-neutral, but that can be a very thin line to walk.
Additionally, employers are obligated to seek out reasonable accommodations for employees’ (as well as applicants’) sincerely-held religious/cultural beliefs. And employers are required to provide accommodations for such beliefs, as long as they don’t create an undue hardship on operations.