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Hair Discrimination in the Workplace

January 17, 2020

Hair discrimination in the workplace

Grooming policies are common in the workplace and employers assert they are necessary to maintain a professional working environment. Within the last decade, however, grooming policies, namely provisions banning certain hairstyles, have been highly scrutinized as a result of the disproportionate effect on black employees. Men and women who choose to style their hair in braids, locks, twists, or in its natural afro texture experience resistance and sometimes repercussions at work for violating grooming policies. Although there are federal and state laws against discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity in the workplace, those laws do not include language that protects employees from hair discrimination. Historically, traditional black hairstyles have been considered by many employers to be unkempt and inappropriate for work. Such a biased perception derives out of innocent ignorance, or, as some argue, it is rooted in white supremacy. Regardless of where hair discrimination stems from, it is becoming a growing trend that black hair is considered professional, and black employees should be protected from adverse treatment based on their hairstyles. As of January 2020, only three states (California, New York, and New Jersey) have passed laws banning discrimination based on hair; but other states and cities are proposing similar legislation.

In June 2019, California became the first state to pass an anti-hair discrimination law. The law recognizes that hair has historically been a determining factor of a person’s race, therefore hair discrimination is actually racial discrimination at its core. The California Legislature admits that enforcing a “Eurocentric image of professionalism” through grooming policies that “disparately impact black” people is inequitable. New York adopted the ban on hair discrimination by amending the New York City Human Rights Law to protect the rights of New Yorkers to “maintain natural hair and hairstyles closely associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities” in the workplace. In conjunction with passing the law, the New York City Commission on Human Rights published a guidance on hair discrimination, which includes an informative section on natural hair and hairstyles associated with black people. The Commission’s efforts to educate the public will help to diminish widespread perceptions that black hair is unprofessional. New Jersey recently passed the Crown Act, also known as “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act” in December 2019. The New Jersey Crown Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people at work based on hair texture, hair type, and hairstyles such as braids, locks or twists. Cincinnati, Ohio and Montgomery County, Maryland have also passed the Crown Act.

Illinois and Wisconsin have each proposed legislation to adopt the Crown Act and ban hair discrimination in the respective states. The Illinois bill defines “race” to include traits historically associated with races, such as hair texture and hairstyles. The Illinois bill amends the Illinois Human Rights Act to ban discrimination based on hair. In Wisconsin, Representative LaKeisha Myers introduced the Crown Act in 2019 as a means to ensure “equitable hiring and employment practices in the state of Wisconsin.” Representative Myers made a public statement acknowledging that natural hair textures and styles have often been criticized and used as a “tool of rejection” for black people in the workplace. Ten additional states, (Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia) are considering adopting the Crown Act and have formally stated an intent to introduce anti-hair discrimination laws in their states.

It is important for employers to pay attention to the growing trend of municipalities and states enacting anti-hair discrimination laws as societal views shift. As versions of the Crown Act and other related legislation are adopted to ban hair discrimination, employers will need to amend grooming policies. Braids, locks, twists, afros and other natural hairstyles will have to be considered professional and clean, rather than unkempt and inappropriate in the workplace.

If you are interested in learning more about workplace discrimination or have a question regarding a matter you’ve experienced first hand, feel free to reach out. We are committed to helping our clients increase their awareness on this topic.

This article is a publication of MWH Law Group LLP and is intended to provide general information regarding legal issues and developments to our clients and other friends. It should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or situations. For further information on your own situation, we encourage you to contact one of our experienced Employment Law attorneys or any other member of the firm.

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