New York City Moves to Protect ‘Black’ Hairstyles in the Workplace

By Douglas Lipsky

The New York City Commission on Human Rights recently issued guidance warning employers that prohibiting or restricting natural hair styles associated with African-Americans is a form of unlawful racial discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law.  If you believe you have been treated less favorably than others under an employer’s grooming policy, you should consult an experienced employment law attorney.

Is my hairstyle a protected characteristic?

The new guidance was prompted in part by a rise in cases concerning hairstyle bias nationwide. The guidance makes clear that certain hairstyles — Afros, Bantu knots, braids, cornrows, fades, and locs — are protected characteristics under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) because they are an “inherent part of black identity” and employers should know of the association between these hairstyles and members of the African-American community.

In a press release announcing the guidance, the Commission rejected the misguided, persistent notion that traditional black hairstyles are messy, unhygienic and improper for formal settings.

“Policies that limit the ability to wear natural hair or hairstyles associated with black people aren’t about ‘neatness’ or ‘professionalism;’ they are about limiting the way black people move through workplaces, public spaces and other settings,” NYC Human Rights Commissioner and Chair Carmelyn P. Malalis said in the release.

The press release also noted that the commission is investigating seven discrimination cases involving natural hairstyles. In effect, the guidance makes clear the discrimination based on natural hair and hair styles is illegal.

What does the new guidance mean for employers?

Employers with policies banning black hairstyles face liability under the NYCHRL because such policies subject African American employees to disparate treatment, which occurs when an individual is treated less well because of a protected characteristic. Examples of discriminatory grooming policies include:

  1. Prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades which are commonly associated with black people
  2. Requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards
  3. Banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros

In addition, employers are prohibited from harassing, or otherwise discriminating against, employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with their race by:

  1. Requiring black employees to obtain supervisory approval prior to changing hairstyles, but not requiring others to do so
  2. Only requiring black employees to alter or cut their hair to keep their jobs
  3. Barring a black employee with locs from a customer-facing role
  4. Refusing to hire a black candidate with cornrows because his or her hairstyle does not fit the company’s image for sales representatives
  5. Requiring black employees to cover their hair with a hat or visor

Finally, employers may not ban black hairstyles to promote a corporate image, in response to customer preference, or due to a “speculative” health or safety concern. In the event of a legitimate concern, employers should consider alternatives such as the use of hair ties, hair nets, or head coverings.

Why This Matters

While many forms of racial discrimination are expressly barred under local, state and federal law, the Commission believed it was necessary to clarify that banning black hairstyles in the workplace is a violation of the New York City Human Rights Law. If you believe you have been treated unfairly by your employer because of your hairstyle, you have powerful legal recourse and may be entitled to significant compensation. Call an experienced employment law attorney today to learn more about your rights.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.