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Maine has joined the growing list of states that prohibit discrimination based on traits associated with race, including hairstyle. Beginning August 8, 2022, the state’s employment discrimination law, which applies to employers of all sizes, will define race as including traits associated with race, including hair texture, Afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles. Protective hairstyles include (but aren’t limited to) braids, twists, and locks.

Employers should evaluate any policies that limit hairstyles, including policies that contain indirect restrictions, 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 stands 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.”

Most states that adopt a CROWN act, including Maine, define race to potentially include any trait 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

  • Review (and, if necessary, revise) your policies to ensure they don’t prohibit protected hairstyles.
  • Train managers and 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.
  • Update your Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy, and any other policies that include protected classes, to make it clear that race includes traits associated with race.