Retail employers and other businesses that serve the public in New York City should take particular notice of the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ detailed written guidance issued on December 21, 2015, reinforcing its desire that the protections afforded to transgender individuals by the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) be broadly interpreted to ensure that transgender individuals receive the full protection of the NYCHRL. The guidance includes specific examples of what the Commission believes constitutes unlawful discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived transgender status, gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or gender expression.
The Commission stresses the need for employers in New York City to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun (he/she) and title (Mr./Mrs.) regardless of the employee’s “sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on the individual’s identification.” Recognizing that many transgender and gender non-confirming individuals choose to use a different name than the one they were given at birth, or chose to use gender neutral pronouns (such as ze/hir), the Commission explains that employees expressing such a preference “have the right to use their preferred name.” Refusal by an employer to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun or title because they do not conform to gender stereotypes is a violation of the NYCHRL. Thus, if a transgender woman advises that her preferred name is Jane, even though her identification states that her first name is John, it would be a violation of the NYCHRL for the employer to refuse to call her Jane. The Commission suggests in its guidance that employers should consider creating a workplace policy of asking all employees what their preferred name and gender pronoun are so that employees can self-identify, and so that no single employee is singled out for such questioning (giving rise to a potential harassment claim).
The Commission also addresses employer dress code and grooming policies, advising that employers “may not require dress codes or uniforms, or apply grooming or appearance standards, that impose different requirements for individuals based on sex or gender.” The Commission expressly rejects the federal standard that allows employers to apply different dress code or grooming policies to male and female employees unless the policies create an undue burden on employees. Rather, the Commission opines that “holding individuals to different grooming or uniform standards based on gender serves no legitimate non-discriminatory purpose.” Thus, while employers are entitled to enforce a dress code or require certain grooming/appearance standards, they must do so without imposing restrictions or requirements specific to gender or sex. In this regard, polices such as allowing only women to wear jewelry, or requiring only male employees to maintain short hair would be violations of the NYCHRL, as would a policy requiring different uniforms for men and women. Accordingly, to avoid violations, employers should create gender-neutral dress codes and grooming standards.
Retailers and other businesses that serve the public should also note the Commission’s position that the NYCHRL, “requires that individuals be permitted to use single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms or locker rooms … consistent with their gender, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, anatomy, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on their identification.” Recognizing that other employees or customers may object to sharing a bathroom with a transgender or gender non-conforming person, the Commission warns that “such objections are not a lawful reason to deny access to that transgender or gender non-conforming individual.” The Commission suggests that, to avoid violating the NYCHRL, employers should, “wherever possible,” provide single-occupancy restrooms (that can be used by people of all genders), or provide private space within multi-use bathrooms or locker rooms for anyone who has privacy concerns. However, it would be a violation to force a transgender or gender non-conforming person to use a single-occupancy restroom if he/she/ze does not want to use it. The Commission suggests that employers should post signs in all single-sex bathrooms or locker rooms that state that: “Under New York City Law, all individuals have the right to use the single-sex facility consistent with their gender identity or expression.”
By issuing the guidance, the Commission makes very clear its intention to protect transgender individuals from discrimination based on their transgender status and gender expression. The guidance concludes with a bold reminder of the penalties for violating the NYCHRL’s prohibition of gender identity discrimination. In addition to the remedies available at law to aggrieved individuals who prevail on claims under the NYCHRL, the Commission can impose civil penalties up to $125,000 for violations, and up to $250,000 for violations that are the product of willful, wanton or malicious conduct. Accordingly, to avoid potential violations, New York City employers should consult with counsel to ensure that they create new policies and/or amend existing policies to comply with the directives set forth in the Commission’s guidance, and to minimize the likelihood of a violation of the NYCHRL.