Recent enforcement efforts by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) combined with some local and state “ban-the-box” laws are causing trepidation among employers who must not only consider, but also apparently hire, applicants with a criminal history and unprofessional hairstyles.

The EEOC recently filed a lawsuit in Alabama alleging that an insurance claims company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American applicant because she wore dreadlocks. The EEOC’s position is that the company’s policy of requiring a professional/business look “focuses on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards for other races.”

The EEOC has also pushed its position that considering criminal convictions in hiring decisions can be racially discriminatory, issuing its well-publicized guidance and filing lawsuits against employers that use background checks. Based on EEOC’s logic, Massachusetts and Hawaii already have adopted “ban the box” laws that apply to both private and public employers, and on January 1, 2014, similar measures will take effect in Rhode Island and Minnesota. The cities of Buffalo, NY, Newark, NJ, Seattle, WA, and Philadelphia, PA, also have passed similar legislation affecting private employers. Many more states and municipalities have “ban-the-box” laws that apply only to public employers. (Generally, “ban-the-box” legislation calls for the removal of the criminal history box/question on the job application, and prohibits employers from asking about criminal records in the initial application process.)

Win or lose, the EEOC is unlikely to let up, and the trend of increased employment regulations will continue into 2014, according to legal commentators. Employers should review their policies and procedures at least annually to ensure that they meet EEOC’s guidelines, comply with all federal, state and local laws and regulations, are fair and consistent and aligned with the business model.