Tips to Understand, Prepare for the CROWN Act

Have you heard of the CROWN Act? No, it isn’t a popular TV streaming series about Queen Elizabeth II. The CROWN Act is a new antidiscrimination law sweeping the nation, and it could be coming to a legislature near you soon.

What Sparked Movement To Protect Race-Based Hairstyles

The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act, is part of a national coalition aimed at securing protections for race-based hairstyles in workplaces and public schools. The Act extends current discrimination laws to protect hair texture and protective styles, such as braids, locks, twists, and knots. Under the statute, an employer can’t discriminate against individuals because they have a natural hair tex­ture or choose to wear their hair in braids or dreadlocks.

The CROWN Act grew out of a research study that re­vealed black women are 80 percent more likely to be sent home from work because of their hairstyle and 1.5 times more likely than white women to report they had to change their hairstyle to fit in at the workplace.

Also, some courts have found employees discriminated against because of their hairstyles—even styles pri­marily associated with a certain race—aren’t protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 2016 case, for example, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, “Title VII protects persons in covered catego­ries with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.”

In response, the CROWN Coalition, sponsored by Dove and many other national and local organizations, spread awareness about hair discrimination. The coalition de­scribes its purpose this way:

People should not be forced to divest themselves of racial cultural identity by changing their natural hair in order to adapt to predominantly white spaces in the workplace or in school.

How CROWN Act Works

The CROWN Act builds off current discrimination laws by updating the definition of “race” to include certain hairstyles and adding “protective hairstyles” as a de­fined term. Jurisdictions that pass the Act expand the definition of race to include hairstyles historically attrib­uted to a particular race.

In jurisdictions where the CROWN Act has passed, em­ployers that refuse to hire candidates merely because they style their hair in an afro or dreadlocks face legal consequences. Similarly, employers can’t discriminate against natural hairstyles in dress codes or grooming policies.

Status of State, Federal Legislation

Even though the CROWN Coalition was just formed in 2019, the CROWN Act has received much national attention:

  • As of the end of 2020, six states (California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington) and three cities (Kansas City, Missouri; Covington, Kentucky; and Cincinnati, Ohio) have passed the Act.
  • Another 19 states (including Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska) have introduced the legislation but not yet passed it.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Act in September 2019, but the legislation remains pending in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

New legislative sessions began in January 2021, and many states will see new attempts to pass the Act. A Missouri senator has already prefiled a version of the law for the session, and more state legislation is likely to follow.

3 Things Employers Should Do

If you have employees in a state or city that has passed the CROWN Act (or even if you don’t but you’d like to stay ahead of the curve), it’s a good idea to review your employee handbook and workplace policies. Here are some things you can do to get out in front of the new law:

  • Update workplace dress code and grooming poli­cies to omit any reference to protected hairstyles, hair length, or shaving requirements that aren’t directly tied to safety or other legitimate business requirements.
  • Educate supervising employees about the CROWN Act and how to avoid hairstyle discrimination at work.
  • Ensure all employee appearance policies are en­forced uniformly.

Bottom Line

With more states likely to consider passing the CROWN Act soon, you should stay aware of its requirements or else face hair-raising consequences. If you’re unsure whether your workplace policies or training make the cut, contact legal counsel for advice.

Nancy Musick
Nancy Musick

Foulston Employment Law Attorney