The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that an employer’s policy banning dreadlocks did not constitute racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, the court rejected the argument that hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity for purposes of Title VII. The court reasoned that Title VII protection extends to immutable characteristics but not cultural practices and that hairstyles are not immutable characteristics.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, No. 14-13482 (September 15, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit reviewed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) appeal of a district court’s dismissal of its complaint on behalf of Chastity Jones, who had applied for a job at Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS).

Jones applied for a job at CMS’s call center using an online form. She was selected for an in-person interview during which she wore her hair in short dreadlocks. After the interview, CMS’s HR manager met with a group of applicants, including Jones, and told them that they were all being offered jobs, pending completion of paperwork and lab tests. After the group meeting, the manager met with Jones individually and told her that she could not be hired “with the dreadlocks.” CMS had a race-neutral grooming policy requiring personnel to reflect a “professional and businesslike image” and prohibiting “excessive hairstyles.” Jones told the manager that she would not cut her hair and the job offer was rescinded.

The EEOC filed suit claiming that CMS’s refusal to hire Jones amounted to intentional race discrimination under the disparate treatment theory. The EEOC argued that race was a social construct with no biological definition and that race was not defined solely by immutable physical characteristics. Dreadlocks, according the EEOC, were a racial characteristic of black individuals and were “suitable for black hair texture.” The EEOC also argued that hair was a substantial determiner of race. The EEOC offered evidence that dreadlocks were “‘culturally associated’ with black persons” and reflected aspects of the slave trade, thus having historical significance for African Americans.

The EEOC also cited its Compliance Manual, which stated that the “concept of race encompasses cultural characteristics related to race or ethnicity.” The court was not persuaded that the Compliance Manual was determinative because the guidance offered in it conflicted with legal precedent and with a 2008 EEOC administrative ruling that a grooming policy prohibiting dreadlocks was outside the scope of Title VII.

The court held that Title VII protection only extends to immutable traits of race, and that dreadlocks are not an immutable trait of black persons. The court said that mutable, or changeable, characteristics, such as hair style and facial hair, even if associated culturally with a protected class, are not protected characteristics.

The court acknowledged that there was some support for interpreting “race” as used in Title VII to include cultural characteristics, but the court refused to adopt that interpretation noting that it might lead to difficult issues of interpretation. Finally, the court expressed that, given the complexity of the issue and the role that race plays in society, a broader interpretation of race might be best left to Congress.

Practical Impact

The CMS opinion is noteworthy because of the detailed analysis the court undertook in differentiating race and cultural associations and the protections afforded to each under Title VII. The decision underscores the need for employers to examine policies on dress and grooming to ensure they are neutral toward any protected characteristic. It also reinforces that employers still have freedom (within the scope of Title VII’s prohibitions) to determine what constitutes appropriate appearance and attire according to the business needs of their particular workplace.