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Four Things To Know About Your Hairstyle At Work

Is a workplace grooming policy cramping your style?  If you work in New York, you may have some protections: 

  • A grooming policy cannot directly target hairstyles traditionally associated with persons of color or have a disparate impact on certain races. For example, a grooming policy that limits hair length or height, thus limiting Afros, could violate the law.  
  • An employer cannot maintain a wholesale ban of particular hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, twists, braids, cornrows, Afros or fades.   
  • An employer cannot require only employees with hairstyles associated with their race to cut or conceal their hair or prevent these employees from serving in customer-facing roles.  
  • An employer cannot require employees to alter the natural state of their hair to conform to company appearance standards, for example, mandating hair straightening with chemicals or heat. 

On July 11, 2019, the definition of race under the New York State Human Rights Law [“NYSHRL”] was amended to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles,” such as braids and dreadlocks. NYSHRL §§292(37) and (38). The amendment broadens the definition of race so that an employer who makes an adverse employment decision, such as denying an individual a job or promotion, based on an individual’s hair texture or style that is associated with their racial identity, may have violated the NYSHRL.  [Note: If you work in New York City, this protection has been in place since February 2019. At that time, the New York City Commission on Human Rights [“NYCCHR”] issued guidance https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cchr/downloads/pdf/Hair-Guidance.pdfadvising that workplace grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict natural hairstyles associated with race, ethnicity and culture violate the City’s anti-discrimination law. As detailed in the NYCCHR guidance, the New York City provision is broader and more detailed than the state-wide amendment.]   

While the amendment acknowledges the inextricable link between hair and race it does not prevent an employer from maintaining a neutral “grooming policy” seeking to establish a workforce with a “professional” appearance. Herein lies the challenge. While a grooming policy appears to be neutral, the impact can reinforce racial stereotypes and perpetuate race discrimination. The objective of the amendment is to protect people from race discrimination hiding behind a neutral grooming policy.  

If you think your employer’s grooming policy violates the amendments, or if you think you have suffered other race-based discrimination at work, consult with a workers’ rights attorney to discuss your situation.   

 

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