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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Dreadlocks and Excessive Hairstyle Policy Cause Lawsuit



By Tommy Eden

Chastity Jones applied online for the position of a customer service representative with Mobile, Alabama based Catastrophe Management Solutions Inc. (CMS) and was among a group of applicants selected to participate in a face-to-face group interview. Jones, African American, participated in the interview with blonde hair dreaded into neat curls known as “curllocks.” Human resources staff conducted the interview and offered Jones the position.

However, later that same day while meeting with Jones to discuss her training schedule, a CMS manager realized that Jones’ curled hair was, in fact, in dreadlocks. The manager informed Jones that her hair violated the CMS grooming policy and that in order to obtain employment, she would have to cut off her dreads. Jones refused and the employment offer was rescinded.

CMS’s policy does not explicitly ban dreadlocks but stated as follows: "All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines...hairstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable...”
The CMS manager had interpreted the excessive hairstyle policy as a ban on all dreadlocks.

Jones then filed a Charge of Race Discrimination with the EEOC. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission processed her charged and this week decided to file suit on her behalf in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, Selma Division claiming violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 by implementing a policy that prohibited employees from wearing dreadlocks and enforcing that policy against Chastity Jones. The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions.

Common Sense Counsel: Issues involving hair, dress, grooming and piercing in our “individualistic culture” can be highly sensitive. Employers can avoid similar Charges and lawsuits by first developing grooming policies which conform to EEOC guidelines and second by training management personnel on proper implementation. CMS developed a grooming policy which, on paper, might appear to be racially neutral but apparently failed to correctly train its managers. It is the EEOC’s position in this lawsuit that hair grooming decisions and policies and their implementation should take into consideration differing racial traits, and cannot penalize blacks because they do not conform to normative standards for other races.

Similar dress and grooming issues have arisen in religious discrimination cases involving Abercrombie & Fitch Stores refusal to hire Muslim women in a headscarf because they did not fit “Its Look Policy.” An employer's obligation to engage in an interactive accommodation process is triggered when it is made aware that an employee or applicant has an objection to an employment policy based on some federally protected grounds. Training your managers to perk up their  ears whenever that occurs is just good business.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com