On February 19, 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) issued new enforcement guidance regarding (1) policies that place restrictions, or ban, naturally curly hair, dreadlocks, braids and cornrows, among other hairstyles; or (2) neutral grooming policies that are discriminatorily applied to employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with race.

In its guidance, the NYCCHR emphasized that the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) “protects the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” For “Black people,” which the NYCCHR defines as individuals “who identify as African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin-x/a/o or otherwise having African or Black ancestry,” this includes the right to maintain natural hair, treated, or untreated hairstyles. Grooming or appearance policies that restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with “Black people” therefore violate the NYCHRL’s anti-discrimination provisions.

The NYCCHR clarified that Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL “because they are an inherent part of Black identity.” While it remains acceptable for an employer to impose requirements around maintaining a work appropriate appearance, it cannot enforce such policies in a discriminatory manner or target specific hair textures and styles. Several examples of such violations include a grooming policy:

  • Prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades, which are commonly associated with Black people.
  • Requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax their hair.
  • Banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limited Afros.

For employers that have legitimate health or safety concerns regarding an individual’s hairstyle, the employer must consider alternative ways to meet that concern prior to imposing a ban or restriction on employees’ hairstyle. Examples provided by the CCHR include the use of hair ties, hair nets, head coverings or alternative safety equipment that can accommodate different hair textures and styles.

Violations of the NYCHRL include the risk of:

  • Civil penalties of up to $250,000
  • Requiring the complainant to be hired
  • Requiring reinstatement of the complainant following termination
  • Requiring a promotion of the complainant
  • Back pay
  • Front pay
  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorney’s fees and costs

If you have any questions or concerns about the application of the NYCHRL to your business, or the validity of a potential or pending NYCHRL claim against you or your company on the basis of an individual’s hairstyle, our experienced Labor and Employment Group is ready to speak with you. For more information regarding this guidance, please contact your Reed Smith attorney.