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New York City Law Forbids Hairstyle Discrimination

A group of business people sitting around a table looking at a laptop.

New York City this week is issuing the country's first-ever ban on employer policies and practices that discriminate against how black people wear their hair. 

Guidelines from the New York City Commission on Human Rights state that while employers can impose requirements around maintaining a work-appropriate appearance, a grooming policy that prohibits locs, cornrows, Bantu knots and other such hairstyles will be considered racial bias. The law does not apply to employers with fewer than four employees.

"Employers may not ban, limit, or otherwise restrict 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," according to the guidelines. "An employee's hair texture or hairstyle generally has no bearing on their ability to perform the essential functions of a job."

Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the city's Human Rights Law.

While an employer can impose requirements around maintaining a work-appropriate appearance, it cannot enforce those policies in a discriminatory manner or target specific hair textures or hairstyles. An employer that has a legitimate health or safety concern must consider alternative ways to meet that concern prior to imposing a ban or restriction on employees' hairstyles, according to the guidelines.

Employers' appearance policies have come under scrutiny in the past across the U.S. In January 2018, a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the employer when a former United Parcel Service employee, who was black, working at a facility in Kansas unsuccessfully claimed that her termination from employment was based on race discrimination. She had been repeatedly counseled for wearing bright burgundy braids. The employer was able to demonstrate a consistent application of its personal appearance guidelines.

Applying policies and rules about hairstyle, appearance and safety can be difficult and some believe the rules are used to discriminate against black people. In December, a white high school wrestling referee in New Jersey was barred from officiating any more matches pending an investigation into his forcing a black wrestler to choose between cutting his dreadlocks or forfeiting his match. The wrestler, who reportedly had covered his hair per National Federation of School Athletic Associations rules, opted to cut his hair.

SHRM Online collected the following articles from its archives and other news outlets on this topic.  

What's in a Hairstyle? A Lot. New York City Bans Bias Against Black Hair 

In what is the first law of its kind, hair bias is banned in the workplace, in schools and in public spaces ranging from restaurants to nightclubs to museums. Though the legal protections apply to any group whose hairstyles are associated with their ethnic identity, hair texture and styles often have been singled out and are targets of abuse for individuals of African-American descent. (USA Today)  

New York City to Ban Discrimination Based on Hair 

The guidelines give legal recourse to those who have been harassed, threatened, punished, demoted or fired because of the texture or style of their hair. The city commission can levy penalties up to $250,000 on defendants that are found in violation of the guidelines and there is no cap on damages. The commission can also force internal policy changes and rehirings at offending organizations.

The ban was prompted in part by investigations after complaints from workers at two Bronx businesses—a medical facility and a nonprofit—as well as workers at an Upper East Side hair salon and a restaurant in the Howard Beach section of Queens. (New York Times)  

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]  

NYC Commission on Human Rights Offers Enforcement Guidance to New Law 

While an employer can impose requirements around maintaining a work-appropriate appearance, it cannot enforce such policies in a discriminatory manner and/or target specific hair textures or hairstyles. 

The New York City Commission on Human Rights encourages employers and other entities covered under the law to evaluate their grooming or appearance polices, standards or norms to make sure they are inclusive of racial, ethnic and cultural identities and practices associated with black and historically marginalized communities. (New York City Commission on Human Rights)  

Viewpoint: HR, Is It Time to Reevaluate Your Organization's Dress Code? 

Most of those in HR are the gate keepers of appropriate dress at their respective work sites. A lot has changed over the past two decades. If you are charged with providing input, here are a few things to consider. (SHRM blog)


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