As previewed in our prior blog post, earlier this month Governor Gavin Newsom signed the “CROWN Act” (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) into law, making California the first state to ban discrimination against natural hairstyles associated with race. The CROWN Act takes effect on January 1, 2020.

The CROWN Act amends California’s anti-discrimination statute, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), by defining “race or ethnicity” as “inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

  • Under the new law, “protective hairstyles” include but are not limited to such “hairstyles as afros, braids, locks, and twists.”
  • While largely protective of African American employees, the new law also protects students through amendments to the California Education Code.
    • The CROWN Act prohibits employers and schools from enforcing policies which, while purportedly color-blind, disparately impact the black community. And by amending the FEHA, the new law provides employees who have suffered an adverse employment action due to their natural hairstyle with a cause of action for discrimination.

California’s effort to outlaw discrimination against natural hair is part of a larger movement. Although California is the first US state to prohibit natural hairstyle discrimination, other states are considering similar laws. New York state and New Jersey are also considering bills which would extend similar protections to those who choose to wear natural hairstyles. Like the CROWN Act, the New York and New Jersey bills define “protective hairstyles” to include hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists. The New York bill is currently before Governor Cuomo, who is expected to sign the bill. The New Jersey bill is still being considered by the legislature. If signed, both bills would take effect immediately.

Employer Takeaways

While the CROWN Act does not eliminate an employer’s ability to make and enforce grooming policies, California employers should ensure that any grooming policies are imposed for non-discriminatory reasons, applied consistently, and do not have a disparate impact on employees who fall within a protected class. To avoid “splitting hairs” with employees, employers should:

  • Review their internal policies and handbooks to proactively eliminate any proxies for race, such as prohibitions on certain natural hairstyles, and to ensure such policies are inclusive of all cultures and legally protected classes.
  • Train hiring managers and supervisors about the CROWN Act to prevent preconceived biases about natural hairstyles from influencing hiring decisions and adverse employment actions.
  • Implement a procedure for addressing workplace discrimination claims on the basis of an employee’s natural hairstyle, and determine how such new claims will be addressed when such workplace complaints are raised.

For more on managing your workplace policies and practices, contact your Baker McKenzie employment lawyer.