by Joseph S. Davidson
On July 1, 2022, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed Public Act 1102, which is commonly known as the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (“CROWN”) Act. This new legislation amends the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”) to expand discrimination prohibitions on “traits associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.” Indeed, it is now unlawful to discriminate “against a person because of his or her actual or perceived race” via hair texture or hairstyle. Notably, this expansion applies to all areas covered by the IHRA, including employment, financial transactions, public accommodations, housing, and education.
Although the open-ended wording of the Act increases the possibility of employees pushing for additional traits to be protected under the umbrella of “race,” this much is certain: harassment or adverse employment actions based on an employee’s hairstyle now risk discrimination claims.
Some studies have shown that black women are 80% more likely to change their natural hair to meet social norms or expectations in the workplace. Black women are also 50% more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of a violation of an employer’s workplace grooming standards, usually related to hairstyles, and are 30% more likely to be counseled and made aware of formal workplace grooming standards. This suggests that particular workplace dress codes and grooming policies, such as those prohibiting natural hair or protective hairstyles impose a disparate impact on black women, in particular.
“No Illinoisan should face discrimination based off the way they style their hair. Not in schools. Not in the workplace. Not anywhere,” said Governor Pritzker. “Hair isn’t just deeply personal—it’s inherently cultural, passing down thousands of years of history from generation to generation. Hair discrimination isn’t just a microaggression—it’s racist. And it’s past time we prohibit it.”
The IHRA states, however, that nothing in its list of forbidden forms of discrimination “prohibits an employer from enacting a dress code or grooming policy that may include restrictions on attire, clothing, or facial hair to maintain workplace safety or food sanitation.” The IHRA also includes an exemption that permits hiring or selecting between persons for bona fide occupational qualifications.
Following the adoption of the CROWN Act, Illinois joins a growing number of jurisdictions that have passed similar legislation, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, as well as more than 40 localities such as Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Tucson, Arizona.
The CROWN Act went into effect on January 1, 2023, and applies to the employment, financial transactions, public accommodations, and housing sectors. As such, employers should immediately review their dress code and grooming policies to ensure they comply with the CROWN Act. Requiring employees to wear specific hairstyles, banning certain hairstyles, or even prohibiting hair of a certain length, might potentially violate the Act.