With its “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act” (CROWN Act), New Jersey just became the third state to enact legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture or hairstyles associated with race. On December 19, 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the CROWN Act, which, effective immediately, amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) by adding “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles,” to the definition of race for the purposes of prohibited discrimination.

In September, New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights (DCR) released guidance stating that the DCR considered “hairstyles closely associated with Black people,” such as “twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, and fades” to be included in the definition of racial characteristics protected under the NJLAD. The CROWN Act will now codify this guidance. The NJLAD prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on a number of characteristics including sex, gender identity, national origin, and race.

New Jersey’s CROWN Act was introduced over the summer, before California became the first state to enact legislation banning hair discriminating by passing its own CROWN Act on July 3, 2019. New York followed suit shortly thereafter on July 12, 2019. Like New Jersey, prior to enacting legislation, New York City promulgated its own enforcement guidance, defining discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles as a subset of race discrimination within the meaning of the New York City Human Rights Law. Cincinnati, Ohio and Montgomery County, Maryland have since also adopted ordinances banning hairstyle discrimination. And earlier this month, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) unveiled a federal CROWN Act that would prohibit discrimination based on natural and protective hairstyles traditionally associated with people of African descent, including hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros, as a form of racial or national origin discrimination. Representative Cedric Richmond (D-LA) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. Similar bills are also pending in several states, including Florida, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, and Virginia, and at the local level in Baltimore, Maryland, and Toledo, Ohio.

Employers with multi-state operations should closely monitor hair discrimination bills pending at the local, state, and federal levels. Additionally, there are several considerations for employers operating in states, like New Jersey, that have already adopted hair discrimination laws.

New Jersey employers should review their current policies and practices in light of the CROWN Act and make any necessary revisions or updates. Employers should also make sure managers are properly trained on company policies, including grooming and EEO policies. New Jersey employers should also consider implementing diversity and inclusion training for managers responsible for enforcing or otherwise interpreting company grooming standards or policies. Effective training can help ensure that employers create and appropriately interpret neutral grooming standards that promote both company business interests and an inclusive workplace environment.