California has some of the strongest protections for employees in the country, including with respect to discrimination. Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, it was already unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees for race, but the definition of race did not include protected hairstyles.
In 2019, Governor Newsom signed a bill into law that added “protective hairstyles” to FEHA’s definition of race. Under SB 188, also known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair or CROWN Act, the term “protective hairstyles” includes but is not limited to “braids, locks and twists.” This bill became law on Jan. 1, 2020. Though a couple of other states subsequently enacted similar legislation, California was the first state to pass such a law.
Though some employers may have innocent reasons for setting forth certain grooming standards, restrictions on hairstyle can also be used as a pretext for work discrimination. Even if there is no discriminatory intent, the employer must be mindful of accommodating anyone who may not be able to adhere to certain grooming policies for health or religious reasons. For instance, it could be discriminatory to require men to be clean-shaven since there are certain religions in which men traditionally wear their hair long. Additionally, some men may not shave because it aggravates certain skin conditions, and those conditions must be accommodated.
The CROWN Act gives employees legal recourse if they feel that they have been discriminated against by their employer based on their hairstyle. If someone has been discriminated against, either because the employer maintains a discriminatory written policy or because the employer said or did something to the employee based on his or her hair, an employment attorney may help.