Last week, the NYC Commission on Human Rights issued legal enforcement guidance on racial discrimination on the basis of hair under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The guidance indicates that natural hair or hairstyles are closely associated with racial, ethnic or cultural identities, and it specifically addresses natural hair or hairstyles most commonly associated with black people because “there is a strong, commonly-known racial association between Black people and hair styled into twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, fades, and/or locs.” The phrase “Black people” is defined as those who identify as “African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin-x/a/o or otherwise having African or Black ancestry.” The guidance indicates that grooming policies may implicate other protected classes and religious groups such as Rastafarians, Native Americans, Sikhs, Muslims and Jews.

The guidance provides that grooming policies that ban, limit or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with black people will violate the anti-discrimination provisions of the NYCHRL and may subject an employer to disparate treatment racial discrimination claims. Grooming policies that appear to be facially neutral but have an adverse impact on certain protected classes may give rise to disparate impact racial discrimination claims.

Notably, employers may still maintain grooming policies that require employees to keep a neat and orderly appearance. Employers with specific grooming requirements that are based on health and safety concerns should consider alternatives – such as the use of hair ties, hairnets, head coverings and alternative safety equipment that can accommodate various hair textures and hairstyles – prior to imposing limitations on employees’ hairstyles.

Examples of practices that may violate the NYCHRL include:

  • Prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots or fades.
  • Banning, limiting or otherwise restricting natural hair or hairstyles to promote a certain corporate image because of customer preference or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns.
  • Requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair.
  • Banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros.
  • Forcing black people to obtain supervisory approval prior to changing hairstyles, but not imposing the same requirement on others.

Finally, in addition to employers, the guidance extends to public accommodations because the NYCHRL prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation, including but not limited to public, private and charter schools.

To ensure compliance with this guidance, New York City employers should evaluate their existing grooming and appearance policies to confirm consistency with the guidance and train management and human resources personnel accordingly. Our New York team is available to assist and advise your company regarding its grooming and appearance policies as well as this guidance.