Employment Discrimination Attorney Explains Work Discrimination
A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that employers may discriminate against traditional African American hairstyles, such as dreadlocks. This ruling has potentially larger implications for employees who choose to express their racial heritage through traditional hair styles and other identifying means.
Although racial discrimination is illegal according to state and federal laws, the court reasoned that hairstyles are a matter of choice and can be changed. The texture of a person’s hair, however, is considered a characteristic that cannot be the legal basis for negative employment decisions.
The ruling comes from a discrimination claim where an African American employee was told by a white human resources manager that dreadlocks were against company policy because they “tend to get messy.” The company withdrew its offer of employment and the employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which ruled in her favor and proceeded to file a lawsuit against the company on her behalf. Although the administrative agency was on her side, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree that “hairstyle can be a determinant of racial identity.” As a result, African Americans with certain hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, braids, and afros, can be discriminated against legally.
What is Discrimination?
Discrimination is the unequal treatment of a person or group of people because of a defining characteristic, such as race, sex, gender, or handicap. Not all forms of discrimination are protected by the law; however, the following characteristics may not be the basis for negative employment actions according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws:
- National Origin
- Age (over 40)
- Genetic Information
- Veteran Status
Additionally, California laws, such as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), prohibit discrimination based on the following characteristics:
- Sexual Orientation
- Gender Identity and Gender Expression
- Marital Status
If an employer fires you, fails to promote you, or takes any other negative employment action against you based on any reason related to the above characteristics, you may have a claim against that employer for discrimination. If you file a claim, your employer cannot retaliate against you for making such a claim. Although the law does prohibit discrimination based on these factors, and you should not be fired if you do report the employer, these laws are not always followed.
When is Discrimination Legal?
The court in the recent case involving dreadlocks ruled that discrimination is legal when it involves a traditional and racially unique hairstyle. Unfortunately, many forms of discrimination are legal. Only those people who fall into “protected classes” named above are protected by state and federal laws. People may still face discrimination and negative employment action based on the following:
- Choice of clothing
- Age (anyone under 40)
- Social status
- Number of children
People may face discrimination based on any characteristic; however, only a limited number of things are protected under the law. If you do experience discrimination, you should immediately contact a employment discrimination attorney to find out your legal options.
What to Do If You Experience Discrimination at Work
Your employer should have policies against discrimination in the workplace. It should also provide information about how to report discrimination if it occurs and procedures regarding how to deal with such situations. However, not all employers comply with those requirements. If you do experience discrimination at work, take the following steps:
- Step 1: Gather evidence. You will need to provide as much information as possible to your employer and any agencies that get involved in the discrimination situation. Keep a written account of what happened and when. Write down any witnesses and what actions were taken by everyone involved. Keep pictures, recordings, and any objects that are related to the incidents. Also obtain a copy of your employer’s anti-discrimination policy.
- Step 2: Report it. You should immediately report discrimination to your employer. If your employer does not provide an anonymous line to report such situations, contact your supervisor about it. If your supervisor is involved, contact his or her supervisor. If you have an official human relations department, you can also contact them directly to report the discrimination.
- Step 3: Contact attorney. If your employer fails to stop the discrimination or you face a negative employment situation because of it, contact an attorney right away. Evidence can quickly vanish and may easily be manipulated, so time is of the essence. You will need to file a complaint with the EEOC or other state agencies as quickly as possible, and an experienced employment discrimination attorney can help.
Discrimination Investigations Can Be Daunting
Once you report discrimination to your employer, a full investigation should take place to determine whether your complaint is valid. If your employer does not fulfill its duty to investigate and you file a complaint with the EEOC or other state agencies, those agencies will conduct a full investigation. The investigation can take significant time and be complex. You may have to answer many questions and several people within your organization may be questioned. The goal is to find out exactly what happened and why it was not prevented or stopped.
The lawsuit involving dreadlocks came from a negative employment situation that occurred in 2010, and a lawsuit was not filed until 2013. Now, six years later, the court has finally made a ruling on the case. In that time, the employee who was negatively affected has likely moved on with her life; however, it is very important to continue a case that can have implications for other people employed by that employer and in the nation overall. For example, it is now a precedent that employers can ban dreadlocks throughout a company.