Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Staying Off the EEOC Naughty List
In May 2010, Chastity Jones applied to be a customer service representative at CMS, a claims-processing company in Mobile, Alabama. The position did not involve any in-person contact with customers, but called for speaking with customers only over the phone, from a large call center. She arrived at CMS a few days later dressed in a business suit wearing her hair in short dreadlocks.
Jones interviewed one-on-one with a CMS trainer who made no mention of her hair, nor did any other CMS employee who saw Jones. After her interview, CMS’s human resources manager, a white woman, informed Jones, and a number of other applicants, that they had been hired and explained that they would need to complete scheduled lab tests and paperwork before beginning employment.
After the group meeting, Jones met privately with the HR manager to talk about a scheduling conflict and to request a different date for her lab tests. As Jones was about to leave, the HR manager asked her whether her hair was in “dreadlocks.” Jones said yes. To which the HR manager replied that CMS could not hire her with dreadlocks. When Jones asked why her dreadlocks would be a problem, the HR Manager said: “They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” Jones then told the HR Manager she would not cut her hair off. To which the HR Manager responded that CMS could no longer hire her.
At the time, CMS had a written policy that: “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.” It had no formal written policy about dreadlocks.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit against CMS on behalf of Jones alleged that CMS discriminated against Jones on the basis of her race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleged that “dreadlocks are black hair in its natural, unmanipulated state, and that the natural texture of black hair carries with it a deeply entrenched racial stereotype.” The Mobile Federal Judge dismissed the action based on the pleadings alone holding that dreadlocks are a “mutable characteristic” not protected by Title VII.
On Tuesday of this week the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta let the dismissal stand, and declined to reconsider as a full court a ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not protect wearing dreadlocks because they are not an “immutable” characteristic of blackness.
Common Sense Counsel. This case comes on the heels of a Publix’s case 6 weeks ago with an opposite outcome because those dreadlocks were linked to the applicant’s Rastafarian religion. So if you want to stay off the EEOC naughty list, make your top 5 list and check it twice:1) understand an employee only has to prove a good faith conviction to request a religious accommodation; 2) be accommodating to an employee religious services scheduling request; 3) be most careful before rejecting a religious connected garment or hairstyle request; 4) be mindful of opposition to mandated vaccine request based on religious or disability reasons; and 5) start the New Year on the right track by conducting a policy review to ensure your company is prepared to address upcoming religious accommodation requests to give your company the gift of a litigation-free year!