The Commonwealth of Virginia has made strides towards creating a more just society by enacting fundamental changes to its Human Rights Act (HRA) intended to expand workers’ rights and protections. Of particular import, Virginia enacted the CROWN Act (an acronym for the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act”), which went into effect on July 1, 2020. The CROWN Act amends the definition of race under Virginia’s HRA to include racial characteristics such as “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.” Va. Code. § 2.2-3901. As a result, discrimination against hairstyles that are associated with a particular race of people is now prohibited.
Although the CROWN Act protects all employees, Black employees bear the burden of hair discrimination. Largely due to Eurocentric norms of what qualifies as “professional” and anti-Black racism, Black employees are often expected (and sometimes explicitly told) to alter their hair from its afro, braided, or twisted state so that it appears straight. In fact, a recent empirical study found that Black women with natural hairstyles were often perceived as less professional or competent compared to Black women with straightened hair or White women with straight or curly hair. Consequently, according to this study, Black women with natural hairstyles were less likely to receive a recommendation for a job interview. Now that the CROWN Act has been enacted, such biases violate the law in Virginia.
Even so, some employees may now question whether their Virginia-based employer is permitted to regulate their hair at all. For example, is an employer allowed to require that an employee working in food service wear a hair net? Although there is no explicit statutory language permitting an employer to enforce hair grooming policies, it is likely that an employer may do so in limited circumstances. However, to comply with the CROWN Act, such policy should be strictly limited to health or safety concerns that are only tangential to hair; they must not address the hairstyle itself. To be clear, an employer cannot arbitrarily prohibit certain cultural styles in the workplace on the ground they are “unprofessional” or inferior; such actions would clearly violate the CROWN Act and subject the employer to liability.
As a point of comparison, while the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination against personal appearance (which is defined to include hairstyles), employers may still enforce grooming standards “for a reasonable business purpose; or when such bodily conditions or characteristics, style or manner of dress or personal grooming presents a danger to the health, welfare or safety of any individual.” D.C. Code § 2-1401.02. D.C. courts have interpreted the “reasonable business purpose” provision somewhat broadly. In one case, Turcios v. U.S. Services Industries, the D.C. Court of Appeals found that a reasonable business purpose existed when an employer demanded that a janitorial worker cut his rat-tail hairstyle because the employer had a policy requiring “neat hair style[s].” In the court’s view, the fact that the employer had a contract with the Washington Harbour, under which employees would be “neatly attired at all times,” satisfied the “reasonable business purpose” allowed under the Act.
Yet, unlike D.C., Virginia’s HRA does not contain a similar “reasonable business purpose” provision pertaining to discrimination against hairstyles. Therefore, in Virginia, employers cannot evade the CROWN Act by requiring “neat hairstyles” and then arbitrarily prohibiting hairstyles that are culturally associated with particular racial groups. The CROWN Act is thus good news for employees, especially Black employees, who have long been forced to choose between the freedom to wear natural or cultural hairstyles and the need to abide by their employer’s culturally suspect and unjust hair grooming policies. The Act resolves this dilemma by expressly deeming hair discrimination a form of race discrimination. Therefore—while employers might be able to enact hair grooming policies for satisfactory health and safety reasons—employers cannot police Black hairstyles by banning afros, braids, locs, or any other hairstyle that has been historically associated with the Black community.