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NYC Deems Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair is Illegal

Effective February 29, 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) released detailed legal guidance setting forth new protections the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) has enacted to protect the rights of New Yorkers to maintain hairstyles closely related with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.  The NYCCHR’s legal guidance expressly prohibits employers from applying workplace appearance and grooming policies that restrict, ban, or otherwise limit natural hair or hairstyles.

New York City employers must ensure that any requirements imposed on employees to maintain an appropriate workplace appearance may not target specific hairstyles or hair textures and may not enforce those requirements in a discriminatory manner.  Hence, a grooming policy may not ban hairstyles commonly associate with a person’s racial, ethnic, or cultural identities, such as cornrows, locs, twists, Afros, fades, braids, or other hairstyles that are disorderly or inherently messy.  Any policy that attempts to prohibit natural hair constitutes direct evidence of an employer’s disparate treatment based on race, which violates the NYCHRL.

The NYCCHR’s legal guidance also includes additional examples of employer practices that violate the NYCHRL, including the following:

  1. Imposing the requirement to obtain a manager’s/supervisor’s approval prior to changing hairstyles on some employees, but not on other employees;

  2. Mandating employees wear a hat or visor to hide their hairstyle;

  3. Forcing employees to cut or change their hair or otherwise risk being demoted or losing their job;

  4. Requiring employees with natural or treated/untreated hairstyles that they may not be in a customer-facing role unless they change their hairstyle; and

  5. Refusing to hire an applicant with cornrows, locs, twists, Afros, fades, braids, or other hairstyles that are disorderly or inherently messy because their hairstyle does not fit the employer’s image.

Employers should note that they may adopt grooming policies when the employer has a legitimate safety or health concern, but that the employer must first consider alternative ways to meet that concern before banning or restricting certain hairstyles.  Employers may require employees to wear hairnets, head coverings, or use hair ties to meet a health or safety concern, so long as the employer requires all employees to adhere to this policy.

To avoid the potential threat of litigation, New York City employers should review their handbook policies to ensure they are in compliance with the NYCCHR’s new guidelines.


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