California Man Suing Company That Denied Him Employment Because of His Hairstyle

People of color repeatedly suffer in both the workplace and in education because of simple matters like their hairstyle — and the issue sadly doesn’t appear to be going away.

CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis and Cheri Mossburg have reported that “a Black job applicant suing an employer over hair discrimination is demanding an apology and policy change — but the company said it was a misunderstanding.”

According to CNN, “Jeffrey Thornton filed a lawsuit this week against Encore Group, LLC, claiming the company denied him employment when he refused to cut his hair, which he wears in dreadlocks.”

In his complaint, Thornton states that the San Diego office for the company openly discriminated against his hairstyle, a blatant violation of the state’s CROWN Act. Established in 2019 and passed into California law the same year, the CROWN Act (which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) is a law that prohibits discrimination based purely on a person’s style of hair.

According to Thornton’s lawsuit, when he interviewed for a technical supervisor position with the Encore Group on Nov. 1, Ellis and Mossburg reported that “an Encore hiring manager informed him that he would have to conform to appearance policies if he wanted the job. That meant cutting his hair so that it was off the ears, eyes and shoulders and that the company would not allow him to simply tie his hair back. In order to take the job, Mr. Thornton would have to materially alter his hairstyle, and thus his appearance, cultural identity and racial heritage,” 

It also calls Encore’s policy “racial discrimination” because it is designed to primarily impact hairstyles associated with race, particularly those of Black men and women.

Following the announcement of Thornton’s lawsuit, Encore Global put out a statement saying the whole situation had been a “misunderstanding” and added that his employment offer was still available.

“Maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace where every individual has a full sense of belonging and feels empowered to reach their potential are core values of our business. These values are key to fueling innovation, collaboration and driving better outcomes for our team members, customers and the communities we serve,” the company said. “We regret any miscommunication with Mr. Thornton regarding our standard grooming policies — which he appears to fully meet, and we have made him an offer of employment. We are continuously looking to learn and improve, and we are reviewing our grooming policies to avoid potential miscommunications in the future.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Thornton’s lawsuit was the first to invoke California’s CROWN Act after it went into effect in January 2020. Since then, Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that 13 other states have passed versions of the law.

Speaking to the press about his case earlier in the week, Thornton expressed shock at what he was told by Encore hiring managers, especially since he had worked for the company previously for a number of years before being furloughed in March 2020. During the time with the company, he had also worn his hair in dreadlocks and said being forced to cut them off to go back to work was a definite “deal-breaker.”

“I wouldn’t be able to come to terms with sacrificing my disciplinary journey and what it symbolizes,” he said.

Adam Kent, the lawyer representing Thornton in the case, added that he and his client were also not satisfied with the response they’ve received by Encore up to this point.

“While we are glad that Encore Global has acknowledged its error in denying my client’s employment due to his hairstyle, we have yet to receive a formal apology or a commitment to changing the grooming policy that has had a disparate impact on African-Americans,” Kent said. “I intend to engage with Encore further to determine if they will fulfill all the requests we have made in our lawsuit.”


Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.


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