Bolstering the state’s reputation for progressive employment legislation, California has become the first state to ban discrimination based on natural hair and protective hairstyles.  On July 3, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 188, which amends the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), specifying that “hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”  The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, takes effect on January 1, 2020, and applies to California employers with five or more employees.

The new law amends the FEHA definition of “race” to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”  Protective hairstyles include, for example, “braids, locks, and twists.”  As a result, California employers will be barred from maintaining dress code or grooming policies that prohibit natural hair or protective hairstyles, as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants, and to burden or punish Black employees, than any other group.  The bill explains that “[p]rofessionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.”  The legislation also updates the California Education Code to prohibit similar discrimination in public education.

Although California is the first state to prohibit natural hairstyle discrimination, it trails New York City, which issued guidance in February 2019 explaining that policies banning natural hairstyles or hairstyles most closely associated with black people generally violate the New York City Human Rights Law.  The New York City guidance also explicitly prohibits grooming policies that require employees to change their hairstyle to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair.

Similar legislation, sponsored by the CROWN Coalition (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), is pending in New Jersey and was recently passed in New York state and is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

In light of these developments, employers should proactively review their grooming and appearance policies, even those that appear facially neutral, to ensure that they comply with the new prohibitions, are inclusive of all cultures and legally protected categories, and backed by legitimate, objective business needs.  Employers should also take measures to ensure that such policies are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner, including providing training to managers and others involved in the hiring process regarding the new law.

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Photo of Carolyn Rashby Carolyn Rashby

Carolyn Rashby provides business-focused advice and counsel to companies navigating the constantly evolving and overlapping maze of federal, state, and local employment requirements. Carolyn’s approach is preventive, while recognizing the need to set clients up for the best possible defense should disputes arise.…

Carolyn Rashby provides business-focused advice and counsel to companies navigating the constantly evolving and overlapping maze of federal, state, and local employment requirements. Carolyn’s approach is preventive, while recognizing the need to set clients up for the best possible defense should disputes arise.

As a senior member of Covington’s Institutional Culture and Social Responsibility Practice Group, Carolyn has co-led significant investigations into workplace culture, DEI issues, and reports of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment.

As an employment lawyer with over two decades of experience, Carolyn focuses on a wide range of compliance and regulatory matters for employers, including:

  • Conducting audits regarding employee classification and pay equity
  • Advising on employment issues arising in corporate transactions
  • Strategic counseling on a wide range of issues including discrimination and harassment, wages and hours, worker classification, workplace accommodations and leave management, performance management and termination decisions, workplace violence, employment agreements, trade secrets, restrictive covenants, employee handbooks, and personnel policies
  • Drafting employment contracts and offer letters, separation agreements, NDAs, and other employment agreements
  • Advising on employee privacy matters, including under the California Consumer Privacy Act
  • Providing guidance on use of AI in the workplace and development of related policies
  • Leading anti-harassment and other workplace-related trainings, for employees, executives, and boards

Carolyn also works frequently with the firm’s white collar, privacy, employee benefits and executive compensation, corporate, government contracts, and cybersecurity practice groups to ensure that all potential employment issues are addressed in matters handled by these groups.

Photo of Michelle Barineau Michelle Barineau

Michelle Barineau counsels clients on a broad range of labor and employment issues. She helps clients navigate matters involving discrimination, harassment, family and medical leave, wage and hour compliance, non-competition, trade secrets, and other issues arising under state and federal employment laws. She…

Michelle Barineau counsels clients on a broad range of labor and employment issues. She helps clients navigate matters involving discrimination, harassment, family and medical leave, wage and hour compliance, non-competition, trade secrets, and other issues arising under state and federal employment laws. She routinely provides guidance pertaining to employee handbooks, employment agreements, and workplace policies. Michelle also has experience investigating employment complaints and she frequently partners with white collar colleagues to conduct internal workplace culture assessments and audits in the wake of the #MeToo movement.