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.
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 locs.
Thornton’s complaint claims the San Diego office for the company violated the state’s CROWN Act, which prohibits employers from withholding employment based on discrimination against the protected applicant’s hairstyle.
According to the lawsuit, when Thornton interviewed for the technical supervisor position on Nov. 1, 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 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,” the complaint says. The lawsuit calls Encore’s policy “racial discrimination” because it targets hairstyles associated with race, particularly Black employees.
Encore Global issued a statement this week saying there was a “misunderstanding” with Thornton and that an employment offer was still on the table for him.
“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,” the statement said. “These values are key to fueling innovation, collaboration and driving better outcomes for our team members, customers and the communities we serve.
“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.”
Thornton’s lawsuit is believed to be the first to invoke the state’s CROWN Act, which went into effect in January 2020, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. California was the catalyst for other states to pass similar laws banning hair discrimination in schools, sports and workplaces. So far, 13 other states have passed versions of the CROWN Act, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, Thornton said he was shocked when Encore told him he’d have to cut his locs because he’d previously worked for the company for four years in Florida before being furloughed in March 2020. In 2019, he started wearing his hair in locs, Thornton said. Being forced to cut them for a job was a “deal breaker,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be able to come to terms with sacrificing my disciplinary journey and what it symbolizes,” Thornton said of his locs, which are often associated with cultural identity and racial heritage in the Black community.
Thornton’s lawyer, Adam Kent, said they were not completely satisfied with Encore’s response.
“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 told CNN. “I intend to engage with Encore further to determine if they will fulfill all the requests we have made in our lawsuit.”