On Feb. 18, 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released new legal enforcement guidance stating that “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hairstyles or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate the NYCHRL’s [New York City Human Rights Law] anti-discrimination policies.” The Commission noted that grooming and appearance policies affect many communities, but focused its legal guidance on policies “addressing natural hair or hairstyles most commonly associated with Black people, who are frequent targets of race discrimination based on hair.” According to the Commission, a grooming or appearance policy prohibiting natural hair and/or treated/untreated hairstyles to conform to the employer’s expectations “constitutes direct evidence of disparate treatment based on race” and violate the City’s Human Rights Law. The Commission identifies the following policies it contends would fall within this category:
A. A grooming policy prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades which are commonly associated with Black people.
B. A grooming policy requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair (i.e., use of chemicals or heat).
C. A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp thereby limiting Afros.
Lastly, the guidance cautions that employers may not ban, limit, or restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black communities to promote a certain corporate image due to customer preference or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns.
Nothing in the new guidance prevents an employer from requiring all workers to wear their hair up or in a net for legitimate health or safety reasons. However, the guidance states that employers are required to consider alternative ways to meet the health or safety concerns prior to imposing a ban or restricting hairstyles, such as the use of hair nets, hair ties, or alternative safety equipment.