Employer dress codes aimed toward the legitimate business interests of professionalism, safety, hygiene and neatness are legal. However, recent attention has been given toward the issue of whether it is illegal discrimination for employers to ban certain hairstyles traditionally held by and associated with African-Americans. In New Jersey, a particularly brutal story surfaced in the news in December 2018 about a 16-year old African-American wrestler named Andrew Johnson who was forced to unnecessarily cut off his dreadlocked hair just minutes before his wrestling match by a Caucasian referee and in front of a gymnasium full of spectators. This story prompted outrage and stirred controversy over discriminatory hair-grooming policies and practices in schools and in the workplace.

There is a growing movement toward protection against discrimination based on hairstyle and texture in recognition of the importance of hair to cultural identity and the historically discriminatory treatment people of color have received because of their natural hair. In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights instituted a law that bans workplace discrimination based upon hairstyle. Just this week, the California Senate passed the “CROWN” Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), which seeks to add hairstyle and texture associated to race with California’s anti-discrimination laws. The bill, which was introduced by Senator Holly J. Mitchell, will now move on to the California State Assembly.

Speaking before the Senate’s vote, Mitchell noted that African-American men and women have had to go through expensive and dangerous chemical treatments to alter their hair to conform with Euro-centric norms in the workplace.
Natural hair or hairstyles associated with African-Americans including dreadlocks, Afros, cornrows and braids have been historically stereotyped and perceived as unprofessional against Euro-centric standards of appearance. Derogatory words such as “nappy” and “kinky” have been used to describe afro-textured hair. A simple google search of “unprofessional hairstyles” reveals many images of African-Americans in natural hair or braids.

The new law in New York aims to change that as well, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights provides the following examples of illegal practices:

1. Employers cannot enact policies that force black employees to alter the natural state of their hair to straighten or relax it using chemicals or heat (and further defines “black” as individuals who identify as African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin-x/a/o, or otherwise having African ancestry).

2. Employers cannot enact grooming policies that prohibit twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades, which are hairstyles traditionally and most commonly associated with natural black hair and black cultural identity.

3. Employers cannot require black employees to hide their hair or hairstyle with a hat or visor.

4. Employers cannot force black employees to obtain approval before changing hairstyles (but not requiring the same of other employees).

5. Employers cannot force black employees to cut their hair or lose their job.

6. Employers cannot refuse to hire a black applicant with a hairstyle traditionally and most commonly associated with natural black hair or black cultural identity because the applicant “does not fit the image” the employer is trying to project.

7. Employers cannot refuse to put a black employee in a customer-facing role because they have a hairstyle traditionally and most commonly associated with natural black hair or black cultural identity.

8. Employers cannot ban, limit, or otherwise restrict hairstyle traditionally and most commonly associated with natural black hair or black cultural identity under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns. When an employer has a legitimate health or safety concern, prior to imposing a ban or restriction on hairstyle, alternative options should be considered (i.e. hair nets, hair ties, head coverings, etc).

Although employers can impose requirements for appropriate work appearance, it is against the law to enforce discriminatory grooming policies, or to apply facially neutral grooming policies disparately against black people.

If you have been terminated or retaliated against because of your hairstyle or hair texture, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. At Mashel Law, we are all well experienced in handling discrimination and retaliation cases and will aggressively seek to discover the evidence required to get your claim to a jury. Mashel Law, located in Morganville, New Jersey, is dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.

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