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May 3, 2021

Legal experts: Employers should review policies in light of new CT anti-discrimination law

HBJ PHOTO | ZACH VASILE Eric Sussman is an employment lawyer and partner in the Hartford office of law firm Day Pitney.

With a new law on the books banning workplace discrimination against natural hair and hairstyles traditionally associated with race, employers should review and possibly refresh their employee handbooks, lawyers say.

The CROWN Act — an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” — was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont earlier this year. It modifies Connecticut’s existing anti-discrimination rules by expanding the definition of race to include “ethnic traits historically associated with race,” including but not limited to hair texture and hairstyles.

That category includes wigs, headwraps, braids, cornrows, locs, twists, Bantu knots, Afros, and Afro puffs, the act states, though its language makes clear that list is not complete or all-encompassing.

Since its inception, the measure has been backed by Black and minority workers, who testified before the legislature’s Labor Committee describing the time, money, and effort they’ve expended over the years trying to make their natural hair more acceptable to employers, or potential employers, who may harbor biases against certain hairstyles.

Notably, Vannessa Dorantes, the first Black commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, submitted testimony describing her own experiences with unstated and perhaps even subconscious aesthetic expectations that put Black people at an unfair disadvantage.

“Personally, I have had to devote too much time in decisions related to hairstyle choice and its effects on how I would be received,” Dorantes wrote. “Negative perceptions do not change the skills I possess or the boundless potential in developing young people. However, it becomes all too real when discrimination of this kind occurs.”

Keegan Drenosky

With the CROWN Act now in place to prevent those abuses, employers should go over dress codes, grooming policies, and related workplace rules to make sure they are not overstepping their bounds, according to Keegan Drenosky, a lawyer at Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin.

“For a lot of employers their dress code is an afterthought,” Drenosky said. “But it’s important to make sure that those policies aren’t having a disparate impact on people of certain ethnicities.”

Eric Sussman, a partner in the Hartford office of law firm Day Pitney, said he would give employers similar advice.

“It’s important that employers review employee handbooks and company policies to ensure that they are in compliance with the CROWN Act,” Sussman said. “While employers can impose general grooming policies, it’s important to be mindful of how those policies are phrased and how they’re implemented in practice.”

The law should also make businesses more cognizant of how their policies affect their employees.

“The overall goal is to make things more neutral,” said Allison Dearington, a lawyer at employment law firm Jackson Lewis. “It’s raising awareness on a subject that many people may never have thought about unless it impacted them directly.”

Dearington said that, in the process of the law being vetted and passed, she learned more about how Black women in particular have treated and changed their natural hair in order to be perceived as more professional.

“[The CROWN Act] means people are hopefully not having to go to those lengths,” she said.

Allison Dearington

“It sends a message that people shouldn’t be making decisions, including hiring decisions, based on preconceived notions of what looks professional,” Drenosky added.

Broader interpretation

Citing language about “ethnic traits historically associated with race,” all three lawyers noted the CROWN Act appears to extend anti-discrimination protections beyond just hairstyles.

“It’s a bit broader than hairstyle,” Dearington said. “They’re leaving it open.”

“It remains to be seen what other ethnic traits also associated with race might be included as the law on this develops,” Sussman said.

Drenosky said the finer points of the law could eventually be fleshed out through cases heard by agencies such as the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or through developments in other states that have enacted similar, CROWN Act-style legislation.

It’s possible, for instance, the law could be read to include certain elements of dress, Drenosky said, but for now Connecticut employers will have to wait on guidance as it comes down from agencies that deal with workplace discrimination, or from other states.

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