Tuesday, October 8, 2013

EEOC Lawsuit Over Dreadlocks Sparks Criticism and Highlights Issues with Workplace Grooming Policies

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") has filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions, a Mobile, Alabama based insurance claims company, alleging the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American job applicant on the basis of race because she wore dreadlocks. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, Inc., Civil Action No. 1:13-cv-00476-CB-M) The lawsuit highlights the employment issues that can arise over workplace grooming policies, and also has sparked sharp criticism from the business community.

According to the EEOC's suit, after completing an online job application, Chastity Jones was among a group of applicants who were selected for a group interview on May 12, 2010. At the time of the interview, Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or "curllocks." Catastrophe's human resources staff conducted the group interview and offered Jones a position as a customer service representative.

Later that day, the human resources staff met with Jones to discuss her training schedule. During that meeting, they realized that Jones's curled hair was in dreadlocks. The manager in charge told Jones that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to cut them off in order to obtain employment. Jones declined to cut her hair, and the manager immediately rescinded the job offer.

In the lawsuit, the EEOC argues that Catastrophe's ban on dreadlocks and the imposition of its grooming policy on Jones discriminates against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics. Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham District Office, stated, "Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks.

The lawsuit came under sharp criticism today in a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "The EEOC's Bad Hair Day".  The editorial notes the EEOC has a habit of "challenging perfectly legal business practices" and "[s]o is it any wonder that the agency is now expanding resources to workplace dress codes." The editorial had much harsher words for the EEOC’s position:
Apparently Ms. Franklin-Thomas has never seen dreadlocked whites (like the Counting Crow's Adam Duritz) or Latinas (like Shakira). Catastrophe's policy is in fact racially neutral because it enjoins all employees, regardless of race, "to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle." The company determined that dreadlocks don't meet that standard, as is its right.

By leveling a complaint on Ms. Jones's behalf, the EEOC is perversely suggesting that black people shouldn't be held to the same standards as everyone else. The larger travesty of this case and other misbegotten EEOC crusades of late is that they take time and resources away from individuals with legitimate claims of employment discrimination. Banning dreadlocks doesn't qualify.
Lawsuits over grooming policies and dress codes are nothing new, but usually arise in the context of Title VII claims of religious discrimination. These occur when a workplace policy conflicts with a religious practice. Such practices might include the wearing of a beard by Muslim men, the wearing of a skullcap or yarmulke by Jewish men, the wearing of a veil or hijab by Muslim women or the wearing of a turban by male practitioners of Sikh faith. As noted in an earlier article, the wearing of certain tattoos can be considered a religious practice under Title VII. Typical conflicts are policies against facial hair, or wearing attire that interferes with safety equipment or procedures.

In the context of religion, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or job applicant’s religious observances or practices unless it can demonstrate that doing so would constitute an undue hardship on the conduct of its business. The reasonableness of an employer’s attempt to accommodate is a factual determination, made on a case-by-case basis. Each case necessarily depends on its own facts and circumstances, and in a sense every case boils down to whether the employer has acted reasonably. When putting together employee handbooks for clients, I typically advise including a provision in the dress or grooming codes that provides for a request for religious accommodation.

However, in the lawsuit against Catastrophe, the EEOC is claiming that the insurance company’s policy that employees "be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle" specifically discriminates against African-Americans on the basis of race. The aggressive position of the EEOC on this issue is a troubling development for employers, many of which likely have grooming and dress code policies very similar to the defendant in this case.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.