NYC Commission on Human Rights Issues Guidance on Discrimination Based on Hair
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NYC Commission on Human Rights Issues Guidance on Discrimination Based on Hair

March 1, 2019

The New York City Commission on Human Rights released legal guidance relating to discrimination on the basis of hair and hairstyles. While the guidance does not change existing law, it makes clear the commission’s position that the New York City Human Rights Law bans discriminatory practices by employers, housing providers, and other providers of public accommodations based on an individual’s natural hair or hairstyles that are closely related to racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. 

The guidance provides an extensive overview of the historical context of discrimination related to an individual’s hairstyle and provides several examples of employer policies and policies of other institutions, including school districts, that could run afoul of the law. A few examples of unlawful policies include:

  • A policy that requires Black employees to straighten or relax their hair
  • A grooming policy that prohibits twists, locs, braids, cornrows, afros, Bantu knots, or fades
  • A policy prohibiting a male student athlete with locs from participating in an athletic competition because his hair is below his shoulders, but allowing Caucasian student-athletes with long hair to tie their hair back
  • A nightclub’s policy that patrons with natural hairstyle do not meet their dress code

Stereotyping as a form of discrimination has been an evolving principle for the last 30 years. 

In 1989, the landmark Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins first recognized gender stereotyping as a form of sex discrimination when a female employee was denied a promotion because her behavior and choice of dress did not conform with supposed female attributes.  

While the commission’s guidance mostly focuses on racial discrimination, it also mentions and provides examples of similar types of discrimination based on other protected classes, including gender and religion. 

Employers in all jurisdictions are advised to revisit their policies on appearance and grooming standards and to ensure that managers are trained and aware of these potential biases related to an individual’s hairstyle. 

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