California Bans Discrimination Against Natural Hair

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By: Jason N. W. Plowman and Erica H. Gruver

On July 3, 2019, Governor Gavin Newson signed Senate Bill 188, styled “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair” (the CROWN Act), updating California’s anti-discrimination law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  Specifically, the bill modifies the FEHA’s definition of race to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”  The new law takes effect January 1, 2020.

Notably, the new law provides:

“Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter black applicants and burden or punish black employees than any other group.” 

Employers may notice this language is similar to guidance issued by the New York City Human Rights Commission in February 2019 that “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate [New York City’s] anti-discrimination provisions.”

While the new law does not eliminate an employer’s ability to make and enforce grooming policies, California employers should consult with competent counsel to ensure that any grooming policies are imposed for non-discriminatory reasons, are uniformly applied and do not have a disparate impact on certain employees.