Rock Your Crown! What Illinois Employers Should Know about Hair Discrimination

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woman with curly hair

People often say I am my father’s twin, so there’s no surprise that I also inherited his thick, curly hair. But for as long as I can remember, I was often told my hair was “too much.” My mother made sure to always put relaxers in my hair, straighten it as much as she could, and soon after I began to do the same. I developed a love/hate relationship with my hair. And as an adult entering the workforce, I was told to never wear my natural hair during interviews or the first day of work because it was deemed “unprofessional.” It wasn’t until my late twenties that I grew a love for my hair and began to proudly rock my curls, no matter the setting. Unfortunately, not everyone has been able to reconcile their natural hair and society’s standards. Even today, many people encounter racial discrimination in the workplace pertaining to their hair.

Beauty brand DOVE conducted the CROWN study in 2019, which found workplace bias and grooming policies unfairly impact Black women more than non-Black women. The study found that while about 80% of women agreed they had to modify their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office, Black women’s hair is more policed in a workplace. The workplace dress codes and grooming policies that lead to such hair modifications can have a negative impact on those who would like to wear their natural hair. That is why I was glad to hear Governor Pritzker signed the CROWN Act into law.

What Does the Law Say?

In March 2022, the federal House of Representatives passed bill H.R. 2116, the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act of 2022.” This bill has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. While the bill awaits its passage into federal legislation, multiple states have introduced their own laws. Illinois became the 17th state to pass the CROWN Act, which goes into effect in January 2023.

The CROWN (“Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”) Act (Public Act 102-1102), amends the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”) to ban race-related hair discrimination. The Act expands the definition of race to include “traits associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles, such as braids, locks, and twists.” The IHRA notes that this is not an exhaustive list of protected hairstyles.

In 2021, Governor Pritzker signed the Jett Hawkins Act, which banned hairstyle discrimination in Illinois schools. Jett Hawkins was 4 years old when his school sent him home, claiming his braids violated the school’s dress code. The CROWN Act expands this protection to cover housing programs, public accommodations, financial transactions, and employment.

What Does This Mean for Illinois Businesses?

The IHRA states that the CROWN Act does not prohibit an employer from creating and enforcing a dress code or grooming policy. Therefore, employers may require professional appearance, but must refrain from discriminating against individuals for choosing to wear their hair in its natural texture or in a protected hairstyle. Employers should also consider the following:

  • Review and update their existing internal policies, such as EEO policies, grooming policies, and anti-discrimination policies.

  • Review and update their existing employee handbooks, employment applications, and general hiring and employment practices.

  • Train employees—especially supervisors, managers, and anyone responsible for the hiring process—on the importance of creating an inclusive workplace environment by implementing and/or updating their diversity training, unconscious bias training, and training on the organization’s policies.

The CROWN Act takes effect in Illinois on January 1, 2023. Even if a business is not located in a state with the CROWN Act, it should still review, evaluate, and update company documents, policies, and practices to create and support a diverse and inclusive work environment. Employees should not be punished for choosing to love the hair that is their own.