[login-form]

The Practical Employer

Hair Discrimination: Not a Thing

Can an employer run afoul of discrimination laws by making an employment decision based on one’s hair style?

“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer
Here, baby, there, momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair”

– “Hair”

My recent post about the beauty of baldness got me thinking about hair and employment law.

Or, more to the point, can an employer run afoul of discrimination laws by making an employment decision based on one’s hair style?

The answer is likely no.

Not that employees haven’t tried.

For example, Ewing v. United Parcel Service challenged UPS’s Personal Appearance Guidelines. With respect to hair color those guidelines stated: “Hairstyles and hair color should be worn in a businesslike manner.” Shenitta Ewing, African American, claimed discriminatory enforcement of the policy to prohibit her from coming to work with fuchsia-colored hair. The court disagreed, citing at least four examples of Caucasian employees fired or discipline because of their “extreme” hair colors.

Or consider Viscecchia v. Alrose Allegria LLC, which concerned a hotel’s “hair policy,” which required that hair “be clean, trimmed, well brushed, and neat at all times, prohibited “extreme styles,” and further prohibited the hair of its male employees from landing below the shirt collar. After repeated warnings, the hotel fired Richard Viscecchia for refusing to trim his long hair. He claimed sex discrimination, based on a policy that required men, but not women, to maintain short hair. The court disagreed, holding that gender-differentiated hair length standards do not violate Title VII, and “employers can prescribe different grooming standards for male and female employees.”

Or EEOC v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, which concerned an employer’s blanket prohibition against dreadlocks, and an African-American applicant’s rejected claim that such a policy intentionally discriminates on the basis of race.

One potential exception that could make hair discrimination unlawful is where an employee’s hair style is related to a sincerely held religious belief. In that case, an employer should consider possible reasonable accommodations to avoid a claim of religious discrimination.
Otherwise, to sum up this potentially hairy issue, as long as you are not intentionally targeting one protected group over another, you are free to regulate hair in the workplace.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.