In December, 2019, New Jersey enacted the Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act, or the CROWN Act. The CROWN act amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) to state that “race,” as defined by the LAD, includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.” The CROWN Act defines “protective hairstyles,” in turn, as including but not being limited to braids, locks, and twists.

In other words, employers who take adverse action against employees because employees wear natural hair – including certain hair textures, types, and styles – are discriminating on the basis of race.

The CROWN Act was introduced in response to a series of media reports highlighting the issue this past summer. In addition, the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR) recently issued guidance on this point, interpreting the LAD’s provision on race discrimination to cover discrimination on the basis of hairstyles that are “inextricably intertwined with or closely associated with race.”

Although the CROWN Act makes a key principle of the DCR guidance express as a matter of statutory text, it is possible that New Jersey courts will continue to look to the DCR guidance as providing persuasive or illustrative examples of how certain employment actions based on employee hairstyles can constitute race discrimination.

As a result of this law, employers should immediately review their policies, practices, and training materials regarding employee appearance, grooming, and dress code standards to ensure compliance. Employer review is particularly important given that policies that appear to be neutral on their face may, in fact or in practice, actually be discriminatory under the law, as amended.