On December 19, 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law the Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act, known as the “CROWN Act.” The CROWN Act prohibits discrimination against persons based on hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles historically associated with race. Protective hairstyles include, but are not limited to, “braids, locks and twists.”

New Jersey is the third state to enact such legislation, joining California and New York in banning discrimination based on hair characteristics. The CROWN Act is effective immediately and amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by expanding the definition of race to include traits historically associated with race.

The New Jersey bill was introduced after a referee forced a high school wrestler to choose between cutting his dreadlocks or forfeiting a wrestling match. Following an investigation into the incident by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR), the DCR entered into an agreement with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, resulting in the suspension of the referee for the next two wrestling seasons and requiring implicit bias training for officials and staff involved in high school athletics across the state. Thereafter, the DCR issued its “Guidance on Race Discrimination Based on Hairstyle.” According to the DCR’s guidance, employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation “may not enforce grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hair styled into twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, fades, or other hairstyles closely associated with Black racial, cultural, and ethnic identity. Any policy specifically singling out such a hairstyle will generally constitute direct evidence of disparate treatment under the LAD and unlawful discrimination on the basis of race.” The DCR advised that neutral policies that require a “professional” or “tidy” appearance will violate the LAD if enforced selectively and in a discriminatory manner.

What This Means for New Jersey Employers

Employers should review their dress, grooming and other policies establishing appearance standards and revise such policies, if needed, for compliance with the CROWN Act. Employers should also update their training modules to include training against racial harassment and discrimination based on protected hair traits historically associated with race.