The New York City Commission on Human Rights has issued landmark guidance stating that employer polices on appearance and grooming that ban natural hair or hairstyles constitute unlawful discrimination under the city’s human rights law (NYCHRL). These policies disproportionately impact black people, the commission says, and are “rooted in and perpetuate racist notions of what is considered ‘professional’ or ‘appropriate’ in the workplace.” The commission also notes that “Black hairstyles are protected characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.” Employers who don’t comply with the guidance face financial penalties; the commission can also force internal policy changes and rehirings.
Under the guidance, specific violations include:
─ Forcing blacks to obtain supervisory approval before changing hairstyles but not imposing the same requirement on other people
─ Requiring only black employees to alter or cut their hair or risk losing their jobs
─ Telling black employees with locs that they can’t be in a customer-facing role unless they change their hairstyle
─ Refusing to hire a black applicant with cornrows because the hairstyle doesn’t fit the “image” the employer is trying to project for sales representatives
─ Mandating that black employees hide their hair or hairstyle with a hat or visor
The guidance provides options to address “legitimate” health or safety concerns, such as the use of hair ties, hair nets, head coverings and safety equipment that can accommodate various hair textures and hairstyles.
The commission is currently investigating seven cases based on discriminatory practices related to natural hairstyles. Some trends noted in the cases involve black employees: