What You Need to Know About Hairstyle Discrimination in the Workplace

By Douglas Lipsky

Earlier in 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidance to the effect that prohibiting or restricting a natural African-American hairstyle in the workplace is a form of unlawful racial discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). If your employer has a grooming policy that treats you less favorably than other workers, it takes a skilled employment lawyer to protect your rights.

When is hairstyle a protected characteristic?

The guidance specifically included traditional black hairstyles — Afros, Bantu knots, braids, cornrows, fades, and locs — as a protected characteristic under NYCHRL. Because such hairstyles are an “inherent part of black identity,” employers should be aware of the association between those hairstyles and African-Americans, the Commission reasoned.

In taking this action, the Commission rejected the notion that traditional black hairstyles are not suited for formal settings (the commission is also investigating potential discrimination cases involving natural African-American hairstyles). In sum, prohibiting black hairstyles violates the NYCHRL because such a policy subjects African-American workers to “disparate treatment.” 

This is a form of discrimination that involves treating an individual less well based on a protected characteristic. In short, a grooming policy may be considered discriminatory if it:

  • Prohibits hairstyles typically associated with black people (e.g. twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades)
  • Requires an employee to alter his/her hairstyle to conform to the company’s appearance standards
  • Bans hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, particularly in Afros

Employers are also barred from discriminating against or harassing employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with their race. Examples of such prohibited discriminatory actions include:

  • Not hiring a black candidate with locs because his or her hairstyle does not meet the company’s image
  • Requiring African-American employees to obtain a supervisor’s approval before changing hairstyles while not requiring the same of other workers
  • Barring employees with protected hairstyles from customer-facing roles
  • Banning black hairstyles to promote a corporate image or in response to customer preferences

Finally, while employers cannot prohibit black hairstyles due to speculative health or safety concerns. Those with legitimate concerns (e.g. employers in the foodservice or restaurant sectors) may explore options, including the use of hair ties, hair nets, or head coverings.

Why This Matters

In sum, banning black hairstyles is the workplace is a violation of the New York City Human Rights Law. By working with the right employment lawyer, you can make sure your business is in compliance with the Commission’s guidance. Similarly, if you believe your employer has treated you less well than other workers because of your hairstyle, an employment law attorney can help you explore all the legal remedies available to you.

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.