Massachusetts has joined the growing list of states to prohibit discrimination based on traits associated with race, including hairstyle. Beginning October 24, 2022, the state’s employment discrimination law, which applies to employers with six or more employees, will define race to include traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length, and protective hairstyles. Examples of protective hairstyles include braids, twists, locks, and hair coverings.

Employers should evaluate any policies that limit hairstyles, such as those that require hair to be less than a certain length. If you have safety concerns, brainstorm ways to safely allow protected hairstyles. For example, employees with long hair may be able to tie it back or cover it during hazardous activities. If you (or the employee) can’t resolve a conflict between protected hairstyles and safety, we recommend consulting with an attorney before taking adverse action against the employee.

Broader Implications

Natural hairstyle discrimination laws (often called CROWN acts, which is an acronym for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) create legal protections so employees don’t have to change part of their racial identity for work. CROWN acts tend to focus on protecting natural hairstyles and, as a result, may affect many employers’ long-standing dress and grooming policies as well as how they can legally define “professionalism.”

Many states that adopt a CROWN act, including Massachusetts, define race to include any trait historically associated with race, not just hairstyles. This could generate broader applications of the law, such as protections for dialect and styles of dress.

Action Items

  • Update your equal employment policies to make it clear that race includes traits historically associated with race.
  • Review (and, if necessary, revise) your policies to ensure they don’t prohibit protected hairstyles or hair coverings.
  • Train those involved in the hiring process to not make judgments about professionalism or cultural fit based on an employee’s hairstyle and work to ensure their own unconscious biases don’t negatively affect candidates or employees.