The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) argument that certain hairstyles could be “culturally associated” with race and are immutable characteristics protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions (11th Cir. 2016).
Chastity Jones, an African-American woman, completed an online application and showed up for a personal interview, dressed in a business suit with her hair in short dreadlocks. At the end of the interview, the company’s HR manager asked Jones if she had her hair in dreadlocks. Jones stated that she did. The company’s HR manager then stated that “CMS” could not hire Jones with her hair in dreadlocks. CMS had a race-neutral grooming policy that required employees to be “dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and business-like image. … No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.” CMS then rescinded the job offer.
The EEOC filed suit on Jones’s behalf and argued that the employer’s policy constituted racial discrimination. Specifically, the EEOC argued that race is more than a biological fact, but is recognized as a “social construct.” The EEOC further argued that dreadlocks are a racial characteristic of black individuals, that they are “culturally associated” with black persons, and have historical significance for African-Americans. While the court acknowledged that race includes cultural characteristics, the EEOC’s arguments ultimately failed. The Eleventh Circuit found that “as a general matter, Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.” The Eleventh Circuit proceeded to explain that dreadlocks are not an immutable characteristic of African-Americans. The Eleventh Circuit called upon Congress to further define and/or expand the definition of “race” under Title VII, but re-affirmed the principle that the courts are generally “tasked with interpreting Title VII … not with grading competing doctoral theses” regarding “cultural characteristics or traits associated with race.”
This decision just reaffirms the need for employers to review their policies on dress and grooming and hiring practices to ensure that they are neutral toward any protected characteristic.