New York City Human Rights Law Expanded to Protect Against Discrimination on the Basis of Hair

On February 18, 2019, the New York City Commission of Human Rights announced that the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) will now protect against discrimination on the basis of hair. The NYCHRL generally prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of age, alienage/citizenship, color, disability, gender, gender identity, marital/partnership status, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, sexual orientation, and status as a veteran. Under the new law, discrimination on the basis of an individual’s natural hair or hairstyle will be considered a subset of race discrimination.  

The NYC Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) issued guidance on race discrimination on the basis of hair and provides the following examples of practices that will now be considered a violation of NYCHRL’s anti-discrimination provisions, including:

  • A grooming policy prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades;
  • 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 chemicals or heat); or
  • A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp, thereby limiting Afros.

The Commission also noted that discrimination can come in the form of facially neutral grooming policies related to characteristics that may not necessarily be associated with a protected class but that are discriminatorily applied. For instance, an employer violates the NYCHRL when it enforces a grooming policy banning the use of color/dye, extensions, and/or patterned or shaved hairstyles against Black employees only.

The NYCHRL also prohibits covered employees from harassing, imposing unfair conditions, or otherwise discriminating against employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with their race. Examples of discrimination include:

  • Forcing Black people to obtain supervisory approval prior to changing hairstyles, but not imposing the same requirement on other people.
  • Requiring only Black employees to alter or cut their hair or risk losing their jobs.
  • Telling a Black employee with locs that they cannot be in a customer-facing role unless they change their hairstyle.
  • Refusing to hire a Black applicant with cornrows because her hairstyle does not fit the “image” the employer is trying to project for sales representatives.
  • Mandating that Black employees hide their hair or hairstyle with a hat or visor.

Finally, employers may not ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black communities to promote a certain corporate image, because of customer preference, or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns. An employee’s hair texture or hairstyle generally has no bearing on their ability to perform the essential functions of a job.

New York City employers should review their policies to ensure they are neutral and inclusive of ethnic and/or cultural practices related to hair.