What Employees Ought to Know About Dreadlocks in the Workplace

On September 16, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that prohibiting an employee from wearing his or her hair in dreadlocks is not racial discrimination.  Historically, courts have found in favor of employers on this issue. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision was soundly based on prior case interpretation, but sparked the debate as to whether race discrimination laws should protect cultural characteristics.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions

The suit arose when Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) rescinded a black women’s job offer because she refused to cut off her dreadlocks. In 2010, Chastity Jones was hired by CMS as a customer service representative. CMS’ human resources manager Chastity Jones later informed Ms. Jones that CMS would not hire her “with the dreadlocks,” because “they tend to get messy.” CMS had a policy stating that “hairstyle[s] should reflect a business/professional image.” Ms. Jones refused to cut off her dreadlocks and her job offer was rescinded.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit on behalf of Ms. Jones in federal district court alleging unlawful race discrimination. The district court dismissed the claim and the EEOC appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

In the district court, the EEOC alleged race discrimination under sections 2000e-2(a)(1) and 2000e-2(m) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Section 2000e-2(a)(1) and section 2000e-2(m) provide two separate causes of action for employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

  • Section 2000e-2(a)(1) (Disparate Treatment): Section 2000e-2(a)(1) states that it is “unlawful [for employers] to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Employees must prove the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee because of an immutable characteristic.
  • Section 2000e-2(k)(1) (Disparate Impact): Section 2000e-2(k)(1) does not require proof of an employer’s discriminatory intent. Instead, the employee must prove that an employment practice has an adverse impact on a protected group.

On appeal, EEOC argued disparate treatment only under section 2000e-2(a)(1). EEOC argued that prohibiting dreadlocks was racial discrimination, “because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent” and that “race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity.” The appellate court disagreed and held that the EEOC failed to prove intentional discrimination as required by the statute.

Was the Eleventh Circuit’s Decision Correct?

The decision appears consistent with standards established by prior court rulings that hairstyles are not immutable characteristics. The Eleventh Circuit distinguished court decisions protecting immutable characteristics from unprotected mutable characteristics. In Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mut. Hosp. Ins., Inc., the Seventh Circuit held against an employer for denying a promotion because the plaintiff “wore her hair in a natural Afro.”

Whereas, in Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., the District Court for the Southern District of New York upheld an employment policy banning braided hairstyles because braids are a mutable characteristic. The Eleventh Circuit stated that “as far as we can tell, every court to have considered the issue has rejected the argument that Title VII protects hairstyles culturally associated with race.”

Although the Eleventh Circuit was reluctant to include cultural characteristics within the definition of race, the decision raised the debate over whether definitions should be expanded. Given the complexity of race in American society, the Eleventh Circuit stated that issues regarding race definitions in Title VII should be “resolve through the democratic process.” The Eleventh Circuit even commended Ms. Jones on her “intensely personal decision and all it entails.” Nevertheless, the court stated that it is merely tasked with interpreting Title VII, “not with grading competing doctoral theses in anthropology or sociology.”

In the diverse fabric of the United States, perhaps legal definitions of race should be expanded. The debate as to whether cultural characteristics should be accommodated in Title VII continues, but the Eleventh Circuit made clear that the fight should be taken to the legislature, not the courts.

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