Black worker claims employer required dreadlocks be cut in lawsuit

Jeffrey Thornton's lawsuit may test the limits of California's 2019 CROWN Act law against anti-Black hair discrimination

A San Diego man filed a lawsuit last week accusing a prospective employer of requiring him to cut his dreadlocks to land a new job.

Audio-visual specialist Jeffrey Thornton and his legal team filed their suit against the event planning company known as Encore Global in San Diego Superior Court on Monday, according to WWSB. The court case is believed to be the first of its kind since California’s law barring companies from discriminating against Black hairstyles went into effect almost two years ago.

Jeffrey Thornton, second from left, looks on as President of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates Rev. Shane Harris speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (Photo credit: The People’s Association of Justice Advocates)

Thornton, who is Black, worked for Encore Global in Florida, but was furloughed during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to KSWB-TV. He moved to San Diego after receiving an October email from Encore Global inviting furloughed workers to apply for positions in the coastal southern California city.

In his lawsuit, Thornton claims he recently applied and interviewed for a technical supervisor position and was told by a hiring manager that he was a competitive candidate, but would have to cut his hair to get the job, according to KFMB.

“I was told that I was recommended by my East Coast references and that I should find the transition to be no problem,” Thornton told KFMB. “All that was left was to discuss the dress code. I expected that I was to remove my ear gauges. It’s not a problem. I’d be willing to trim my facial hair, but I wasn’t prepared to be told that I would need to cut my hair in order to comply with Encore’s standards.”

Thornton told the news station cutting his locs was a dealbreaker, but said the local Encore Global hiring manager told him the position would be waiting for him if he changed his mind.

In response, Thornton reached out to employment lawyer Adam Kent, who later accused Encore Global of violating California’s CROWN Act, an acronym for Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair. The 2019 law, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, expands the California Fair Employment and Housing Act’s definition of race-based discrimination to include discrimination against certain hair textures and protective hairstyles.

Similar laws have been passed in 13 other states, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Professionalism is not about fitting into Eurocentric norms,” attorney Kent told reporters at a Tuesday news conference about the lawsuit, per KSWB-TV. “Professionalism is about competency. It’s about skill and respect. We all expect to be judged based on our abilities and based on our character,” Kent said.

Encore Global told reporters last week that the situation appears to be a misunderstanding. The company said it has offered Thornton a job.

“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,” an Encore Global spokesperson told KFMB.

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