The NYC Commission on Human Rights (Commission) recently released new legal enforcement guidance (guidance) that prohibits employers from punishing, demoting, firing, harassing or taking other adverse actions against workers who wear their hair in styles reflecting their culture. The Commission asserted that such grooming policies are “rooted in and perpetuate racist notions of what is considered ‘professional’ or ‘appropriate’ in the workplace and public spaces” and, thus, are violations of the NYC Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The new guidance interprets the NYCHRL’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race to similarly ban discrimination on race-related hair and hairstyles.

The new guidance particularly acknowledges and bans discrimination on the basis of natural hair and hairstyles which disproportionately impact Black people (including African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino individuals). The guidance explains that “Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity” and employers cannot force Black employees to change their natural hair as a requirement for employment. However, according to the Commission, the new guidelines do not prohibit health and safety policies requiring workers to wear hairnets or pin up their hair, as long as those health and safety concerns are legitimate and the rules apply to all workers.  

According to the guidance, examples of violations include:

  • A grooming policy prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots or fades which are commonly associated with Black people.
  • A grooming policy requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the employer’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair (i.e., use chemicals or heat).
  • A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros.
  • Requiring only Black employees to alter or cut their hair or risk losing their jobs.
  • Telling a Black employee with locs that the employee cannot be in a customer-facing role unless the employee changes the hairstyle.
  • Refusing to hire a Black applicant with cornrows because the hairstyle does not fit the “image” the employer is trying to project for sales representatives.
  • Mandating that Black employees hide their hair or hairstyle with a hat or visor.
  • Banning, limiting, or otherwise restricting natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black communities to promote a certain corporate image, because of customer preference, or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns.

Note that facially neutral policies may nonetheless impermissibly discriminate against Black individuals based upon their hair or hairstyles.

The Commission further noted that policies that implicate religious groups or other protected classes may also violate the NYCHRL. 

Although New York City is one of the first jurisdictions in the country to address this issue through legislation or administrative guidance, there have been numerous lawsuits across the country in recent years based on grooming policies that allegedly disparately impact protected classes. 

In light of the broad application of the NYCHRL and this new guidance, New York City employers should revisit their handbooks and policies, including their grooming and appearance policies, to ensure they do not have different expectations for employees based on race or impose any restrictions that may have a disparate impact on protected classes. In addition, they should ensure that all such policies are applied in a race-neutral manner.

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