Employer's Dreadlock Ban Is Not Racial Discrimination, 11th Circuit Finds

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

September 28, 2016

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer's refusal to hire an African-American job applicant because she refused to cut her dreadlocks is not illegal. The federal appellate court reasoned that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects covered persons with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their hairstyle.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claimed that targeting dreadlocks as a basis for employment can be a form of racial stereotyping since the people most significantly affected by a dreadlocks ban are African-Americans.

The Alabama company had a race-neutral policy at the time stating that all personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image. "No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable."

The applicant in question showed up for her job interview dressed in a blue business suit and wearing her hair in short dreadlocks. A short time afterward, the company's human resources manager called the applicant and others who were selected into a room as a group.

The HR manager, who is white, informed all those in the room that they had been hired and just needed to complete scheduled lab tests and paperwork before beginning their employment. At no time did she comment on the applicant's hair. It was only after the meeting when the applicant asked if she could change her lab test date because of a scheduling conflict that the HR manager said the company could not hire her "with the dreadlocks."

When the applicant asked what the problem was, the HR manager said of dreadlocks, "They tend to get messy, although I'm not saying yours are, but you know what I'm talking about."

While the appellate court noted that an employer cannot have a hiring policy that discriminates based on race, it said a policy that distinguishes on some other ground, such as grooming or hair length, is more closely related to an employer's choice of how to run its business than equal employment opportunity.

The court also found the fact that dreadlocks are a "natural outgrowth" of black hair texture does not make them an immutable characteristic of race. As a result, it concluded the employer did not violate civil rights law in withdrawing the job offer based on its policy.