California has become the first state in the nation to prohibit discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles. The bill expands the definition of “race” under state anti-discrimination law to include traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles. On July 3, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the CROWN Act – which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair.”

The law expands the definition of race under both the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the anti-discrimination provisions of the California Education Code, to include discrimination based on traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles, such as braids, dreadlocks and twists. Effective January 1, 2020, an employer may not withhold or terminate employment or promotion based on a job applicant’s or employee’s hairstyle.

When hair acts as a proxy for race, the bill declares, discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination. “Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals as these policies are more likely to deter Black applicants and burden or punish Black employees than any other group,” the bill states.

Although the California law is the first statewide discrimination ban based on hair, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) released enforcement guidance identifying discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles as a form of race discrimination earlier this year.

The NYCCHR guidance indicates that, while requiring employees to maintain a work-appropriate appearance is lawful, banning, limiting or otherwise restricting natural hair or hairstyles closely associated with the racial, ethnic or cultural identities of black people is unlawful discrimination. These styles include dreadlocks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, Afros and/or hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.

What Employers Need To Do

Employers affected by the California and New York City measures should review their grooming standards and appearance policies to ensure they not only are neutral but also inclusive of ethnic or cultural practices related to hair and hairstyles.