Big business or small, everyone has a certain image they want to present to their customers. For many, maybe most, that image is professional. That means dressing nicely, perhaps pantsuits or skirt-suits for women and suits or blazers and ties for men or some version of business casual for everyone. When it comes to grooming, the word neat springs to mind. Trimmed up and styled for women and trimmed up no lower than the collar for men.
But, wait a minute. Can an employer’s grooming policy really dictate how a person presents, right down to hairstyle?
That answer to that is yes, but sometimes no.
A famous example of violating a grooming policy happened in Baseball a little more than 20 years ago. Baseball fans might recall back in 1991 the late George Steinbrenner, then owner of the New York Yankees, not only benched one of his players, Don Mattingly, but also fined him $250 dollars plus $100 dollars a day for every day he kept his hair long. A no-no in the Yankee organization. Donny Baseball was too shaggy for the owner’s taste. Steinbrenner wanted clean-cut players, and clean-cut players he was going to get. There was a long-standing grooming policy in place, and Mattingly’s contract stated that he would abide by team standards and rules.
Another, not-so-famous case occurred in 2013. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sued a company, Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS) on behalf of an African-American woman, Chastity Jones, whose job offer was rescinded, because she wouldn’t cut her curl-locks, a variation of dreadlocks. Dreadlocks violated CMS’s grooming policy. In 2014, the suit went to the District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, Southern Division, where the EEOC lost. The suit was then bumped up to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals where, again, in 2016, the EEOC and Jones lost.
Where a grooming policy doesn’t work is when it becomes so rigid, it doesn’t accommodate for protected characteristics, such as religion (think Title VII). Family Foods, Inc., a North Carolina corporation that operates a Taco Bell chain in that state, learned their policy went too far when one of their employees, Christopher Abbey, was fired, because he refused to cut his hair. He refused on the basis of his religion. A practicing Nazarite, he had not cut his hair since he was 15-years-old.
The termination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to attempt to make reasonable accommodations to employees’ sincerely held beliefs as long as the accommodation doesn’t pose any undue hardship. Family Foods did not.
Undue hardship is, of course, undefined.
Family Foods paid a dear price for firing Abbey: $27,000 and other relief. They also had to adopt a formal religious accommodation policy and conduct annual training on Title VII and its prohibition against religious discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. They also had to post a copy of its anti-discrimination policy in all of its facilities.
The EEOC vs. CMS (Chastity Jones) case in the Eleventh Circuit Court, if read all the way through, does provide some guidelines that help employers navigate creating a grooming policy that won’t land it in court.
- Title VII protects persons in covered categories with respect to their immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.
- Discrimination based on the basis of black hair texture (an immutable characteristic), is prohibited by Title VII.
- A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.
- Adverse action on the basis of a black hairstyle (a mutable choice) is not [unlawful].
- A hiring policy that distinguishes on some other ground, such as grooming or length of hair, is related more closely to the employer’s choice of how to run his business than equality of employment opportunity.
So, the key word in grooming policy guidelines is mutable. If a characteristic such as a hairstyle can vary or be changed, you can ask for a change or make a change (termination, suspension, etc.). Just be certain the request for change doesn’t violate Title VII or other current labor laws.
Remember, there are federal, state, and local laws, so it’s always wise to check with a local labor attorney before making drastic actions.
Information provided on this site is not legal in nature. All reviews and opinions are submitted and based upon extensive research, experience in the human resources and labor relations fields, and are not, in any way, legal opinions.
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