Can your boss tell you how to wear your hair?

Ashley Davis says her employer said she needed to get rid of her dreadlocks or she'd be fired. Farryn Johnson got in trouble at work when she added blonde highlights -- the company said that violated policy because blonde highlights aren't natural for a black woman. And Christopher Abbey was fired for refusing to cut his hair. But here, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on his behalf, and Abbey won a settlement of $27,000. Why did he have a case when the others didn't?

Religion. Abbey is a Nazirite whose religion prohibits him from cutting his hair. So, he doesn't. And his employer lost the lawsuit because this was a case of religious discrimination. Companies are required to make accommodations for people's religious beliefs as long as they are "reasonable." 

What does reasonable mean? Well, in Abbey's case, it's reasonable for Taco Bell (his employer) to allow him to have long hair, as long as it's pulled back and stays out of the food. Unfortunately for Taco Bell, the courts had to determine this was a reasonable accommodation, and that cost it a lot of money, when allowing him to keep his hair would have been logical in the first place.

What is unreasonable? Well, in terms of hair, if Abbey had said his religion forbid him to cut, wash or control his hair in any manner and that meant long hairs kept landing in the burritos, that would be unreasonable. Taco Bell could have terminated him in that case.

But religious accommodations may no longer be the only way you can get an exception to a company's hair-style policy. Currently, the EEOC is suing Mobile Catastrophic Insurance Claims Co. because it rescinded a job offer after realizing that the candidate, Chastity Jones, had short dreadlocks ("curlocks") rather than short, curly hair. That hairstyle violated company policy. Here, the EEOC is claiming it's racial discrimination. 

This is a case to watch because it could become a real game-changer. If the EEOC prevails, it could mean employers have to consider whether or not a particular hair style is typical of a particular race, or if prohibiting the hair style unfairly affects a particular race. 

I would advise companies to think long and hard about their dress and grooming policies. What is truly necessary? Generally, "neat and clean," should be sufficient and shouldn't open you up to lawsuits. For employees and job candidates, it's still a risk to show up at a job interview (or later, to work) with dreadlocks or a similar hairstyle. Many companies still consider these hairstyles outside the mainstream, and therefore, want them banned.

Personally, I find such a ban foolish, and if I had to make a prediction, it would be that the EEOC will prevail in the Jones lawsuit. After all, hairstyles tend to vary from ethnic group to ethnic group and excluding a hairstyle common in one group and not in others is simply a proxy for racial discrimination. 

Regardless of hairstyle, employers should focus on results and not on appearance. It would be nice if businesses could figure that out on their own, but those that don't may well be subject to court interference.

Still, for now, unless you have a religious reason for your hairstyle, your manager can dictate how you wear your hair at work.

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