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Fashion and free speech: the employer dress code

At first, it may sound like a ridiculous problem, suing your employer for not allowing you keep your dreadlocks. But the matter was sufficiently serious that it went all the way up to the 11th Federal Circuit of Appeals. Back in the day, workplaces could impose any dress code they wanted on their employees. The general understanding was that fashion (i.e. hair, clothing, etc.) was not a protected right and therefore an employer is free to permit or restrict it. That is how Pan Am could do the famous "pinch" and "thigh" test for its flight attendants.

The 8th Circuit considered the case of a woman who applied for a position with the company. She was offered the job on the condition that she cut her dreadlocks. The applicant refused, and the company rescinded the offer.

The woman, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), argued that refusing to hire her because of her dreadlocks was race discrimination because dreadlocks are culturally and physiologically associated with African Americans. The primary effect of the request was to refuse to hire her because she had “black” hair.

The Court disagreed with the EEOC. The court determined that the grooming policy was reasonably related to the business, to project a professional and business-like image. Furthermore, the Court concluded that it was following in a tradition of cases which rejected the premise that hairstyles are invariably associated with race. The Court interpretation mainly follows other court traditions which prohibit employers from discriminating based on immutable factors, like skin color or race, but not mutable factors, like the style of dress or hair.

Keep in mind that the 11th Circuit covers Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Missouri falls under the 8th Circuit however the courts are encouraged to bring their rulings into harmony. Therefore, a groundbreaking decision in one Circuit could cause similar decisions in other Circuits.

If you believe you were unfairly denied a position because the employer discriminated against you based upon your race, then you should call a lawyer as soon as possible, you could have a valid employment claim. Race discrimination is an illegal practice, employers who engage in this behavior are subject to fines levied by the government and damages owed to the affected employee. The nuances of enforcing these rights, for example, the right of a woman to wear dreadlocks, is how employers can escape their duties and why an attorney is critical to protecting your civil rights.

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