On June 30, 2022, Governor Pritzker signed the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act). In essence, the CROWN Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of race-based hairstyles and hair textures. The Act went into effect on January 1, 2023. Illinois joins 17 other states that have passed similar laws and more than half of all states have pending legislation for consideration.
What led to the passage of the CROWN Act?
Some studies have shown that black women are 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations in the workplace. Black women are also 50 percent more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of a violation of an employer’s workplace grooming standards, usually related to hairstyles. Black women are also 30 percent more likely to be counseled and made aware of formal workplace grooming standards. This suggests that certain workplace dress codes and grooming policies, such as those prohibiting natural hair or protective hairstyles like braids, twists and knots, impose a disparate impact mostly on Black women.
Broadening the definition of “race”
The CROWN Act broadens the definition of “race” in the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.” The amended definition applies to all areas covered by the IHRA, including housing, public accommodations, education, and real estate transactions.
Impact of the CROWN Act on dress codes and grooming policies
The IHRA does state that nothing in its list of prohibited forms of discrimination “prohibits an employer from enacting a dress code or grooming policy that may include restrictions on attire, clothing or facial hair to maintain workplace safety or food sanitation.” Trying to reconcile this language with the new Act is somewhat difficult. Arguably, if an employer seeks to enforce grooming policies that would have a disparate impact on a certain race, it must show that the policy relates to safety and sanitation, which in many workplace contexts could be quite difficult. In such instances, any such policy should be implemented and applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Employers who have sanitation and safety concerns should also consider measures other than restricting hairstyles, such as hairnets or hair ties to accommodate diverse hair textures and styles.
Complying with the CROWN Act – Key Takeaways for Illinois Employers
Employers should immediately review their dress code and grooming policies to ensure they comply with the Act. Requiring employees to wear specific hairstyles, banning certain hairstyles, such as braids, cornrows, dreadlocks or fades, or even prohibiting hair of a certain length, could violate the Act.