Can your hairstyle lead to a discrimination case?

Indeed, in most white-collar professions there is an expectation of professionalism; both in appearance and how one conducts themselves. But who has the right to determine what is “professional” and what is not? This is a question decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th  Circuit stemming from a case where a job applicant was given a job offer only to have it rescinded when she would not cut her dreadlocks. 

An HR representative for the employer, citing what is being considered a race neutral grooming policy, asked the applicant if she had dreadlocks after an in-person interview. The applicant answered “yes,” prompting the representative to explain that the company would not hire the applicant “with the dreadlocks” because they “tend to get messy.” The representative tried to explain that they didn’t look messy at the moment, but expressed some concern that they would eventually be a problem.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on behalf of the applicant. The Commission reasoned that policy was not necessarily race neutral, and it was being applied in a discriminatory manner. However, the 11th Circuit ruled that Title VII did not protect individual expressions through hairstyles, even though they may be based through the culture of a protected class.

It is expected that there will many other thoughts and opinions as the case gains more traction in daily news cycles, but for now it is an example of how employees must be wary of workplace grooming policies and how they may be applied in a discriminatory manner. 

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