Untangling Employer-Mandated Grooming Policies: What Title VII Does and Does Not Allow

Late last summer, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in favor of an employer after an employment candidate accused the company of race discrimination by virtue of its enforcement of its employee grooming policies. This so-called “dreadlock decision” has led to many discussions and commentaries since its release, both about what “race” means as well as the degree of control employers should have over their employees’ appearance. For employers and employees in Georgia, it is useful to take note of exactly how far the law allows an employer to go in mandating an employee’s choice of hairstyle.

At first blush, one might think that Title VII prohibits employers from having different rules based upon protected categorizations like sex. That’s not true. The federal courts here have long held that employers are allowed to have one set of rules for women’s hair versus another for men’s hair. In 1971, a man sued a Macon newspaper that had refused to hire him, allegedly for the sole reason that he wore long hair. Both the federal district court and the appellate court ruled for the employer. Such decisions amount to an employer’s own decisions about how to run a business, rather than a denial of equal employment opportunity, the courts ruled. (Other courts, by the way, have issued similar rulings about company policies demanding that female employees wear makeup.)

The courts have made similar rulings about rules prohibiting certain unique hairstyles commonly associated with a particular race. In the most recent case, the employee who launched an unsuccessful race discrimination lawsuit was an African-American woman in Alabama who wore her hair in dreadlocks. A few years earlier, a Valdosta theme park defeated a lawsuit launched by an African-American female employee whose supervisor objected to her wearing her hair in cornrows.

The courts have ruled for employers in these situations because all of these hairstyles are things that are not “immutable characteristics,” which is what Title VII requires. Long hair for men or dreadlocks, braids, or cornrows for African-Americans are, in the eyes of the law, “easily changed” characteristics and therefore not immutable, even though, for many African-Americans, they may be strategic methods for dealing with the unique challenges that come with the natural texture of their hair.

While these hairstyles may be associated with African-American culture and the unique texture of African-American hair, that does not make them immutable. At least one federal court has suggested, however, that banning some hairstyles might trigger Title VII liability if the hairstyle is one that occurs naturally as a result of the hair texture of a particular race. In other words, an anti-cornrow policy is permissible under the law, but a policy banning African-American employees from wearing an “Afro” hairstyle might not be.

All of these circumstances involve potential employer liability (or lack thereof) for race or sex discrimination. The legal analysis is different if the employee objecting to a grooming policy does so based upon religious practice and obligation, as opposed to an objection to alleged race or sex discrimination.

For both employers and employees, it is useful to understand what Title VII law says an employer can (and cannot) do in terms of company policies, including grooming rules. For specific and customized advice about these and other discrimination issues in your workplace, talk to the Georgia discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys are here to help you better understand your rights, obligations, and options under the law.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Dreadlock Discrimination Argument in Title VII Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 21, 2016

Whose Business is it? Some Workplace Boundaries, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 12, 2014


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