In a rare defeat for employers who try to dictate their workers’ appearance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that Hyatt hotels engaged in racial discrimination by prohibiting black women from wearing their hair in cornrows.
The decision stems from the case of two Washington area women whose treatment by Hyatt prompted a national boycott campaign against the Chicago-based company, a mediation effort by Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson and repeated protest rallies at Hyatt hotels. One of the workers lost her job, while the other was ordered to wear a wig at work.
Hyatt, which operates 91 hotels in the United States, insists that it has never had a nationwide policy banning cornrows, the tightly woven braids worn thousands of years ago by African women that are again popular among fashion- and culture-conscious blacks.
Nonetheless, the job-bias agency’s Baltimore office ruled early this month that there was evidence Hyatt had discriminated against black female employees and job applicants across the country.
As many as 1,000 women may have been victims of the ban on cornrows, according to Eric Steele, the attorney in Washington for Cheryl Tatum and Cheryl B. Parahoo, the two coffee shop workers who filed formal complaints. All could be entitled to cash settlements under terms of the commission decision.
Steele said Monday that the ruling sent a “clear message” to businesses and black women.
“Employers will know across the country that they cannot engage in this kind of discrimination,” Steele said. Black women, he added, will know “they have a right to come forth and show part of their heritage without worrying about being disciplined or discharged by their employer.”
Hyatt Denies Bias
Amid protests by civil rights groups in Washington last August, Hyatt rescinded a no-cornrows policy at its new Grand Hyatt hotel and issued a chain-wide directive saying the company’s policy against “extreme or unusual hair styles” did not extend to cornrows.
In any event, Hyatt insists it has not shown bias against black women. “We’re not a company that engages in a pattern or practice of discrimination and we did not discriminate in those cases,” Julie Milsten, a Hyatt spokeswoman, said Monday.
While the ruling does not set a binding precedent, it is likely to be cited in court cases and state or federal discrimination claims as evidence that federal anti-bias laws protect cornrows as a distinctive expression of blacks’ cultural heritage.
As such, it represents one of the few limitations on employers’ generally unfettered freedom to dictate grooming and dress standards for their workers--a freedom that has led employers as diverse as Disneyland and Domino’s Pizza to impose strict grooming codes.
Under commission procedures, Hyatt soon will begin conciliation talks with Parahoo and Tatum. If an agreement on compensation cannot be reached, Steele said it was likely that he or the agency would file a class-action suit against the hotel firm seeking damages for anyone harmed by Hyatt’s cornrow policies.