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NYC Commission on Human Rights Issues Guidance on Race Discrimination on the Basis of Hair

Setting new precedent on Feb. 18, 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) issued new guidance prohibiting race discrimination on the basis of hair. The new guidance provides legal recourse under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to individuals who are discriminated against, harassed, punished, not hired, or fired based upon the style and length of their hair. The guidance extends to work, school, housing, or public spaces, and generally includes all employers with four or more employees.

The NYCHRL protects individuals working and living in New York City. The new guidance allows New Yorkers to maintain “natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities,” regardless of the mutable nature of such characteristics. Natural hair is broadly defined to include natural texture and/or length and includes hair styled into twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, fades, and/or locs.

Private entities with policies that prohibit hairstyles associated with a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group likely run afoul of the NYCHRL’s protections. The guidance expressly states that policies rooted in the belief that certain hairstyles are “unhygienic, messy, disruptive or unkept” are “fundamentally racist” (citing grooming policies that require maintenance of a “neat and orderly” appearance that prohibits locs or cornrows). The guidance also makes clear that even a “facially neutral grooming policy related to characteristics that may not necessarily be associated with a protected class” will be deemed a violation of the NYCHRL if discriminatorily applied to enforce a grooming policy banning hairstyles closely associated with a racial, ethnic, or cultural identity.

While the guidance focuses predominantly on race, it is broadly extended to other impacted groups including Latin, Indo-Caribbean, or Native American individuals. Also footnoted in the guidance is reference to communities that have a religious connection with uncut hair, including Native Americans, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Nazirites, or Rastafarians.

The NYCCHR’s new guidance extends to grooming or appearance policies prohibiting employees from maintaining or wearing untrimmed beards, regardless of health and safety concerns or customer preference. If an employer does have a legitimate health or safety concern, it must consider alternative ways to meet that concern prior to imposing a ban or restriction.

Examples of violations include but are not limited to:

  • 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;
  • A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp.

The NYCHRL also prohibits covered employers from harassing, imposing unfair conditions, or otherwise discriminating against employees based on appearance associated with their race, including:

  • Forcing employees to obtain supervisory approval prior to changing hairstyles;
  • Requiring only employees of a certain race to alter or cut their hair or risk losing their jobs;
  • Telling employees with cornrows that they cannot be in a customer-facing role unless they change their hair style;
  • Refusing to hire applicants with cornrows or other hairstyles because it does not fit with the “image” of the employer;
  • Mandating that employees hide their hair or hairstyle.

Any employers with employees based in or out of New York City that have existing grooming or appearance policies or standards should reevaluate such policies or standards based on the new guidance, which is effective immediately.

The statute of limitations for filing a complaint with the Commission’s Law Enforcement Bureau is one (1) year from the discriminatory act and within three (3) years for claims of harassment. The statute of limitations for filing a complaint in court is three (3) years from the discriminatory act.

©2019 Greenberg Traurig, LLP. All rights reserved.

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Wendy Johnson Lario, Greenberg Traurig Law Firm, New Jersey, Labor and Employment Attorney
Shareholder

Wendy Johnson Lario is an attorney at the New Jersey Labor & Employment Practice and represents employers in litigation involving claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination and whistleblowing, among others. She appears regularly in federal and state courts in New Jersey and New York and defends employers against charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (NJDCR) and the New York Division of Human Rights (NYDHR). Wendy also provides advice and training to management and in...

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Courteney Caine Employment Attorney
Associate

Courteney Lario Caine focuses her practice on representing employers and managers in employment disputes arising under employment laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the ADEA, the ADA, the FMLA, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and the New Jersey Family Leave Act. Courteney has extensive litigation experience defending discrimination, wrongful discharge, and wage-and-hour cases in state and federal courts.

Courteney also counsels clients in a variety of employment matters including drafting policies, handbooks, confidentiality agreements, offer letters, employment contracts, arbitration agreements, restrictive covenants, and training programs; ensuring wage and hour and ADA compliance; and defending Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state fair employment practice agency charges.

In addition, Courteney also handles large-scale commercial litigation matters, including corporate contract disputes, class actions, and nationwide product liability matters. Courteney also devotes a significant amount of her time to pro bono efforts.

Courteney earned a J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law, cum laude, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Seton Hall Legislative Journal and also worked as a legal intern for the Honorable Stuart Rabner, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the Honorable Faith S. Hochberg, United States District Judge for the District of New Jersey. Prior to law school, she earned a Bachelor of Arts from Georgetown University.

973.443.3267
Danielle Gonnella Lawyer New Jersey Greenberg Traurig Employment Law
Associate

Danielle E. Gonnella focuses her practice on representing employers and managers in employment discrimination and wrongful discharge cases arising under employment laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the ADEA, the ADA, the FMLA, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and the New Jersey Family Leave Act. In addition, Danielle handles wage payment and overtime compensation claims, including class actions, under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Danielle...

973-443-3295
Jerrold Goldberg, Greenberg Traurig Law Firm, Labor and Employment, Real Estate and Education Attorney
Shareholder

Jerrold F. Goldberg practices in the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice’s Labor-Management Relations group. He has been practicing in virtually all aspects of labor and employment law since 1979, including the traditional labor/union-management area, employment discrimination, executive employment, severance agreements and wage and hour laws. Jerry exclusively represents management clients primarily in the real estate and hospitality industries in transactional matters, including commercial and residential building and hotel sales and purchases, administrative...

212-801-9209
Eric Sigda, Greenberg Traurig Law Firm, New York, Labor and Employment Law Attorney
Shareholder

Eric B. Sigda is a shareholder in Greenberg Traurig’s Labor & Employment Practice. He represents management in litigating federal and state employment matters including claims involving allegations of discrimination, harassment, whistleblowing, Sarbanes-Oxley retaliation, breach of contract, wage and hour class actions, misappropriation of trade secrets and violations of restrictive covenants. Eric has handled matters in federal and state courts and in arbitration. He has also represented clients before various agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity...

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