The New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) issued new guidance that aims to further curb race discrimination in the NYC workplaces. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York Human Rights Law both strictly prohibit NY employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race. However, many people still experience such discrimination through seemingly neutral and innocuous employment policies that apply differently to people of different races.
The NYCCHR stated that discrimination against Black individuals continues to occur in many ways, including employers enforcing policies that discriminate against common cultural practices or characteristics of Black people. The new guidance aims to reduce anti-Black racism rooted in grooming policies, specifically relating to an employee’s hairstyle. All employers and employees in New York City should be aware of the new guidelines and understand their responsibilities and rights under the law.
Discrimination on the Basis of Hair
An individual’s hairstyle or the state of their natural hair is often closely connected to racial, cultural, or ethnic identities. When an employer bans certain hairstyles, they are often engaging in racial or ethnic discrimination.
Employers often enact grooming policies including hairstyle bans claiming that specific styles are not “professional.” However, these policies often reflect the Caucasian standard of what is professional or not, and perpetuate anti-Black racism by deeming traditionally Black hairstyles as unprofessional. To try to eliminate this form of racism, the new NYCCHR guidance protects an employee’s right to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.”
For many Black employees, such hairstyles include:
- Natural hair
- Bantu knots
- Extensions or weaves
It also includes a Black employee’s right to keep their hair in an untrimmed or uncut state.
Important New Hair-Based Protections
Based on the guidelines, policies that ban the above hairstyles will be considered to be unlawful discrimination against Black people on the basis of their race, under the New York City Human Rights Law. This is critical, since many Black individuals choose to adopt one of the above hairstyles to protect their hair, to avoid treatment of their hair, or based on financial, personal, traditional, religious, or spiritual reasons.
There has long been a fundamentally racist opinion among many people and employers that traditionally Black hairstyles are unhygienic, too informal, unkempt, “matted,” or messy. For this reason, many grooming policies banned a wide variety of natural Black hairstyles or employers acted with bias against Black applicants or employees with certain hairstyles.
The socioeconomic pressure to conform to traditional standards of professional appearances has long led many Black people to use chemical straighteners or relaxers and heat styling to change the texture and appearance of their hair. Such long-term styling can lead to many issues, including:
- Hair breakage
- Hair loss
- Traction alopecia
- Trichorrhexis nodosa
- Scalp and skin damage
- Increased risk for uterine fibroids
In addition to the potential physical problems, such unnecessary hair restrictions have additional adverse effects, such as:
- Emotional distress from having to choose between your natural hair or culture and your livelihood and opportunities
- Having to spend more time and money on hair styling products and appointments
- Anxiety regarding the possible stigma of not conforming to such standards
People should be allowed to choose a natural or cultural hairstyle and have educational and career opportunities in line with their qualifications at the same time. The NYCCHR acknowledges the importance of this by including hair discrimination under the umbrella of racial discrimination.
An individual’s hairstyle generally has no impact on their ability to succeed at their job. Companies may not make hair-related grooming policies that target Black employees under the guise of health and safety, customer preference, or corporate image. They also cannot refuse to allow Black employees with certain hairstyles to interact with customers based on their hair.
Other Hair-Related Discrimination
While the NYCCHR focuses on Black hairstyles in its guidance, it is important to realize that grooming policies relating to hair or facial hair can discriminate against others in the workplace, including:
- Not allowing men to wear their hair long while women can
- Discriminating against an employee who cannot cut their hair or beard due to religious reasons
- Disallowing ethnic or religion-based head coverings, including turbans or hijabs
The NYCCHR makes it clear that it is disallowing any hair-related actions or policies that target employees of religious minorities, color, or other protected communities.
Some employers may claim there is a legitimate health or safety reason for having certain grooming policies in place. However, the law requires employers to examine alternatives to banning hairstyles that would satisfy the safety and health concerns. Such measures may include using different safety equipment or requiring the use of hair nets or ties instead of requiring a change in hairstyle.
Harassment and Retaliation
In addition to discrimination, the law in NYC now also prohibits harassment based on an employee’s hairstyle. Employers cannot allow any offensive comments, gestures, or other behaviors in the workplace based on someone’s natural hair or cultural or ethnic hairstyle. If behaviors create a hostile work environment for the targeted employee, this constitutes unlawful harassment based on the employee’s hair.
Furthermore, the law protects employees who complain of possible harassment or discrimination in the workplace. If an employee states she believes that a coworker is harassing her or that a company grooming policy is discriminatory, the employer is prohibited from retaliating against the employee or anyone else involved in the complaint. Retaliation can include any adverse employment action, including:
- Changing job assignments or shifts
- Reducing hours or pay
- Refusal of deserved promotions or pay increases
- Harassment or mistreatment
- Disciplinary action
Employees have the right to report unlawful discrimination or harassment without the fear of retaliation by their employers.
What Should You Do If You Believe You Were the Victim of Hair Discrimination?
All NYC employers should change their policies regarding hairstyles to comply with the law. Unfortunately, we all know that some companies will continue to engage in or allow discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation. As an employee, you have rights if you suffer unlawful employment discrimination.
First, always make notes of all interactions with coworkers, supervisors, or others at your workplace that may be harassing or discriminatory. Then, contact an experienced employment attorney to discuss your rights and options. In many situations, employees may be entitled to compensation and other legal remedies.
Discuss any Concerns with an Experienced New Jersey Employment Attorney
The NYCCHR is one of the most progressive local or state civil rights commissions in the United States. The new guidance only applies to New York City, and not to the rest of New York State or the other states. However, this is hopefully the start to many states changing their policies to help eliminate race discrimination rooted in grooming policies and bias regarding hairstyles.
At Traub Law Employment Attorneys, we stay apprised of all changes in employment laws and work to ensure companies change their policies and actions in line with new guidelines. If you have any questions or concerns about employment discrimination, please call us at 609-951-2204 or contact us through our online forms to schedule your consultation today.