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Is Discrimination On The Basis Of Culture Allowed In The Workplace?


Is it possible for an employer to discriminate on the basis of culture? In other words, can an employer legally discriminate not on the basis of race, but on the basis of a style, characteristic, or personal choice that is closely associated with a given race, religion or gender?

Woman is Fired Because of Hair Style

That’s the question that the eleventh judicial circuit in Florida had to recently rule on. A woman sued a company that forbade her from wearing dreadlocks, even though the employer was in a “behind the scenes” IT position. The employee would have no direct interaction with customers.

Still, the company’s policy had a specific hairstyle restriction. It required employee’s hairstyles to project a “professional image,” and generally, not to stand out with unusual styling or coloring.

The woman was actually offered a job—until her dreadlocked hairstyle was noticed by a co-employee. She was asked to cut them off if she wanted to continue working for the company, because, as she alleged, someone at the company told her, dreadlocks “get messy,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

Lawsuit is Filed Against the Company

When she refused to cut her hair, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a lawsuit against the company. The EEOC said that the firing violated the woman’s civil rights, because she was fired for being black. In other words, the EEOC equated the business’ anti-dreadlock policy as being an anti-race policy, because dreadlocks, the EEOC argued, are closely and culturally associated with those in the black community.

Further, the EEOC argued, the company’s real, underlying reason for the hairstyle policy, was to discriminate against black employees.

The company argued there was nothing racial about the policy, but rather, the policy was one strictly related to hairstyle. And, because hairstyle is just that—a style, or a cultural choice, which any race could adopt—it could not be racial.

What is Race?

The court was left to decide what race really is. Is race the way someone is born? Or is it the way someone dresses, looks, their clothes, or their cultural choices? And is discriminating on a cultural characteristic the same as discrimination based on race?

The court ended up siding on the side of the employer, saying that the anti-discrimination laws were designed to protect those things that were not a choice, such as one’s gender, nationality or race. They were not designed to protect choices, or things that could be changed, like clothing or hairstyles. That’s even if those choices are closely associated with a specific group.

According to the court, the laws could not protect cultural practices. The fact that a given group chooses to adopt a certain cultural practice, the court said, did not mean that the law then protects those cultural choices.

Were you discriminated against at work? Contact the Miami employment law attorneys at Velasquez & Associates P.A. today for help with your employment and labor law problems.



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