Employer wigs out over an African American employee’s hair; EEOC claims race discrimination

In recent years, some states and municipalities have made it unlawful to discriminate based on an individual’s hairstyle because certain protected classes — usually Black women —  receive unfair treatment based on inherent hair texture and protective hairstyles, like braids, locs, and twists. Why, yesterday, Tempe became the second city in Arizona to pass a hair discrimination ban.

There’s nothing explicit under federal antidiscrimination law, like Title VII, that outlaws hair discrimination. But, that hasn’t stopped the EEOC from pursuing related claims for race discrimination.

Recently the EEOC announced a lawsuit against the southern employer that allegedly got so bent out of shape of a Black woman’s decision to change her hairstyle, it fired her over it. Here’s more from the press release:

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, [the employer] interviewed and selected the worker for an office job. About a month into the job, the worker — who until then had been wearing a wig made of straight hair — stopped wearing the wig and began wearing her own tightly curled hair in a neat bun. The worker’s hair — considered type “4-A” on the Andre Walker Hair Typing System — is commonly associated with people who, like the worker, are African American.

Soon after, the owner told managers to “talk to [the worker] about her hair and looking more professional,” complaining that the worker “came in with beautiful hair,” the EEOC said. The owner nonetheless allowed other workers who did not have tightly curled hair like the Black worker to wear their hair in buns or ponytails. The owner then told the worker that her hair was unacceptable and that she should begin wearing the wig with straight hair again. The worker did not, however, and about a week later, the owner discharged her, the EEOC said, and the company then hired a worker who was not African American in her place.

Now, remember, these are just the EEOC’s allegations. We don’t really know why the company fired and replaced the employee. However, there are a few lessons here, brought to you by the EEOC

  1. “Grooming standards should not assume personal characteristics associated with race.”
  2. “The law prohibits employers from treating employees differently because of personal characteristics associated with race, such as hair texture or skin color, even when all members of a race do not share those characteristics.”
  3. “An employer may no more ask an employee to change or conceal their hair texture than it may ask them to change or conceal their skin color.”
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