By Mark Adams
When it comes to dress codes and attire, companies for years have developed policy standards rooted in conveying a clean, conservative, and/or professional look. In so doing, employees had to conform to a singular vision or appearance. Whether defined expressly or otherwise, hairstyles have been a part of such stereotypes and visions, which has consequently left many minority applicants and/or employees on the sidelines when it came to being hired or promoted into certain positions despite being otherwise qualified to perform those roles.
Enter the CROWN Act legislation. CROWN is short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and is designed to break down some of the stereotypical barriers that certain minority groups were facing when being considered for employment.
To date, 17 states have adopted CROWN Act legislation, with Massachusetts being the latest to sign such measures into law. Other states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. Federally, Congress has contemplated a CROWN Act measure; this measure has been referred to the Senate for further consideration.
What is its significance? For states that have adopted these measures, it makes it unlawful to discriminate based on “natural or protective hairstyles.” Examples of these hairstyles include hair that is tightly coiled or curled, or worn in locks, cornrows, twists, braids, bantu knots, or afros.
For employers that are operating in a state that has enacted CROWN Act legislation, what should you do?
First, review your company policies to see if there is any express language prohibiting such hairstyles in the workplace. Policies that I have seen in handbooks that I have reviewed where the topic of hairstyles has been addressed have included such policies as dress code, hygiene, personal appearance, and professionalism.
If you are a multi-state employer that operates in states where CROWN Act legislation both has and has not been adopted, be careful with your handbook policy and structure. If your handbook is distributed across all your locations, it may be easier administratively to adjust your policy across the board to ensure compliance. (While, conceivably, another path could be to carve out your dress code or other policies and treat them as state-specific addenda or supplements that coincide with the different state requirements, such a practice may prove to be more cumbersome to sustain over time.)
Then there is the subject of managerial and supervisory actions and practices. For instance, have managers and supervisors chosen not to hire an applicant in the past over concerns about hairstyles? Passed over an employee for a promotion? Is it a topic of conversation addressed in interviews? Has the topic been broached in performance reviews or in disciplinary writeups? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then further discussion with management is advised to change practices (whether attributable to express or unconscious bias) moving forward.
As CROWN Act legislation continues to get adopted nationwide, companies may need to change their ways and let their hair down. Choosing otherwise could lead to discriminatory consequences and litigation down the road.
Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org