Businesses operating in New York City must alter or eliminate dress codes or other policies that restrict employees based on natural or cultural hairstyles. In February 2019, the NYC Commission on Human Rights banned the practice of requiring staff to straighten, trim, or wear their hair in any other untreated hair style, such as locs, cornrows, Bantu knots, fades or Afros, among others. Under the new guidance, any such policy is deemed a form of racism and is now prohibited under NYC’s human rights laws.
The guidance isn’t limited to employer-employee relationships. Other entities, such as fitness clubs, schools, nightclubs or other such places are also prohibited from forcing people of color to change their natural hair as a requirement of being allowed entry / membership / patronage / etc.
The guidance applies to people of all ethnicities, but was crafted in response to what the commission calls “racist stereotypes that black hairstyles are unprofessional.”
In December 2018, there was an outcry after a white referee threatened to call a forfeit if a black New Jersey high school wrestler didn’t cut his dreadlocks before a match. The teen had the haircut, but many criticized the demand, including the state’s governor and an Olympic wrestler.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to hear a discrimination suit involving a black Alabama woman who said she lost a job offer because she wouldn’t cut her dreadlocks. A federal appeals court had ruled that the law protects people from discrimination based on “immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices.”
NYC employers who do not comply with the new guidance could pay hefty fines. A conviction for violating NYC’s human rights law comes with a $250,000 in penalties. The business could also be sued in civil court and forced to pay damages to an employee who’s been discriminated against.
While businesses are not required to have a specific anti-racism or discrimination policy regarding hair and hairstyles, doing so can ensure that management and hiring personnel do not accidentally run afoul of the new guidance.
Speaking to New York Law Journal, Miriam Clark, a name partner at Ritz Clark & Ben-Asher in Manhattan who serves as the president of the National Employment Lawyers Association in New York, said, “This guidance doesn’t require that employers have policies, but I do think it would probably be helpful, especially in a large employer … where various store managers have their own unique ideas on what the store’s image should be.”
She added, “In a situation like that, where there’s a chance this kind of discrimination is going on and HR doesn’t know about it, it might be wise to have a policy.”
In cases where hair can be a health or safety concern, such as food service or sensitive manufacturing environments, employers may impose limits to employee hairstyles, but only after having exhausted other alternatives first. This means the use of hair ties, hair nets, and alternative safety equipment capable of accommodating a worker’s natural hair must be pursued. Only if such measures are proven unable to limit the health or safety hazard can the employer request that the employee change his/her hair.