Excerpted from Lexology By Squire Patton Boggs

On April 30, 2019, we reported that the California State Senate had taken steps toward enacting the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “traits historically associated with one’s race, such as hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The bill passed the Assembly on June 27, 2019 and, on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law, making California the first state to expressly include natural hairstyles in its anti-discrimination law.

The preamble to the CROWN Act observes that “[t]he history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness’ and the associated physical traits . . . to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.” It goes on to note that this association came to permeate the workplace, where “professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms,” leading some to “alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently, in order to be deemed professional.” In recognition that “hair today remains a proxy for race” and “a rampant source of racial discrimination . . . , especially for Black individuals,” the CROWN Act aims to eliminate dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, which are likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees.

As amended, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act now includes in the definition of race “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” the latter including “hairstyles [such] as braids, locks, and twists.” Any California employers with grooming policies that prohibit protective hairstyles must amend such policies and train hiring managers about the new law to prevent preconceived biases about natural hairstyles from influencing hiring decisions.

Although California is the first U.S. state to prohibit natural hairstyle discrimination, New York City has adopted a similar standard, expressly protecting employee’s right to maintain “natural hair, treat or untreated . . . such as locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, faces, Afros, and the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” In addition to California and New York City employers who must review and amend their dress and grooming policies if they currently prohibit or discourage natural hairstyles, all U.S. employers are encouraged to review their policies and proactively eliminate any proxies for race.