Dreadlock race discrimination A Michigan bill to amend Michigan’s principal anti-discrimination statute to explicitly ban race-based hair discrimination, e.g., prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture and style, has stalled in the state legislature.

Specifically, Michigan House Bill 4275, also called the CROWN Act (an acronym standing for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2021. However, since then, the bill has yet to move through the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee.

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, education, and housing based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.”

The CROWN Act would amend Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to add:

“Race” is inclusive of traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles. For purposes of this definition, ‘protective hairstyles’ include, but are not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.”

A leading hair discrimination case illustrates the challenges facing employees. The case, EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Solutions, involved a black female job applicant whose offer of employment was rescinded under the employer’s grooming policy and after she refused to cut her dreadlocks. At the time, the employer, Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) had a grooming policy which read as follows:

“All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines. . . . [H]airstyle should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable[.]”

The EEOC argued that the policy banning dreadlocks in the workplace constituted race discrimination because dreadlocks are a racial characteristic — they “are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The district court disagreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Court agreed with the dismissal, holding that while dreadlocks were a manner of wearing hair that was common for black people and suitable for black hair texture, they were not an immutable characteristic of black persons. And therefore, an adverse employment action based on a black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not protected under Title VII. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Without legislation like the CROWN Act and because of cases like EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Solutions, employers will often be able to use guidelines that call for “professional” or not “extreme” looks to prohibit hairstyles that disproportionately lead to bias against black employees. Yet for many reasons employers should consult with their employment law specialists before implementing or enforcing such policies. Here are two reasons:

First, city and county governments may have explicit prohibitions against taking adverse employment actions relating to hair. For example, earlier in 2021, Ingham County passed – the first in Michigan – a resolution banning hair discrimination. Ann Arbor followed with its own ban against race-based hair discrimination.

Second, if a grooming policy is not properly implemented or enforced, then a company could be looking at defending a race discrimination lawsuit. This is what the defendants in Hyundai Motor and other defendants are facing after their motion to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit stemming from – in part – a black woman’s dreadlocks was partially denied. See Key v Hyundai Motor Mfg. (pending in Alabama District Court). There, the Court concluded in its August 2021 opinion that unlike EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Solutions, an alleged statement by a supervisor suggests that the enforcement of the anti-dreadlock policy, as applied to the plaintiff, was not solely about her hair—but was instead a proxy for her race.

Use this link to contact Michigan attorney Jason Shinn if you have questions about this article or complying with Michigan or federal employment laws. Since 2001, Mr. Shinn has represented companies and individuals concerning the issues discussed above and other employment matters under federal and Michigan employment laws.