Do discrimination laws cover hairstyles?

No employer should allow or encourage discrimination in the workplace. Discrimination violates a person's rights under state and federal laws, and it can lead to costly legal battles.

Sometimes it's hard to determine what is and is not discrimination. This can be the case when it comes to physical traits, like hairstyles. Currently, state and federal laws do not specifically include hairstyles on the list of traits that employers are prohibited to use to make employment decisions. Accordingly, an employer can theoretically terminate or not hire someone based on their hairstyle.

However, recently proposed legislation in California seeks to specifically address a person's hairstyle and texture in discrimination laws.

A hairy debate

As noted in articles like this one, Senate Bill 188 addresses hairstyles and texture. The reasoning behind the proposal is that it is unfair for employers to make employment decisions based on the texture or style of a person's hair, as these are "traits historically associated with race."

The bill would also define "protective hairstyles" which are styles that protect the ends of a person's hair. This can include braiding, wigs, twists and other updos that conceal and protect strands. On the other hand, an employer may argue that certain hairstyles are unsafe or unsanitary, which could legitimately affect a person's qualifications for and ability to do a job.

Discrimination is already a complex, controversial area of employment law, and adding more traits to those protected under state law will likely increase instances of debate and confusion.

What to know as an employer

Whether this bill will become law has yet to be determined. However, California employers would be wise to be aware of these efforts and take this time to revisit their own employment policies. Talk to hiring staff and managers about what is and is not acceptable to consider when hiring and terminating workers, including any protected personal traits.

Should any questions or disputes arise, addressing them immediately and with legal guidance can make it easier to resolve the situation amicably.

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