Compliance with Hairstyle Discrimination Laws

October 7, 2019 Advisory

Prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of hairstyle has become a growing trend across the United States. The New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidance on this subject early in 2019, and over the summer, California and New York passed laws expressly banning such discrimination. Last month, New Jersey joined this movement when the state’s Division on Civil Rights (DCR) published guidance confirming that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination bars employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation from discriminating on the basis of hairstyle.

DCR guidance indicates that New Jersey law’s prohibition of hairstyle discrimination will be interpreted:

  • “with a particular focus on hairstyles closely associated with Black people,” and
  • to make it unlawful to enforce “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or restrict hairstyles closely associated with Black people, including, but not limited to, twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, locs, Bantu knots, and fades.”

While states have only recently begun to target hairstyle discrimination explicitly, the EEOC has long interpreted federal antidiscrimination law to prohibit employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of hairstyles that are common within certain minority communities. For example, the EEOC’s Compliance Manual warns that hairstyle rules must “respect racial differences in hair textures and [be] applied evenhandedly.”

Some states, however, have signaled a more aggressive approach to this issue, which should prompt employers to review their personnel policies and antidiscrimination training to mitigate risks of hairstyle discrimination claims. Recently published DCR guidance notes that hairstyle discrimination may be disguised with language “rooted in white, European standards of beauty” and that stereotyping “traditionally Black hairstyles” as “unprofessional,” “unkempt,” “matted” or “messy” may be unlawful. For these reasons, some common employee policies and rules, such as “professional appearance” and “grooming” policies, may need to be clarified to avoid a discriminatory inference.

Armstrong Teasdale’s Employment and Labor practice routinely guides employers in their efforts to comply with discrimination and harassment laws and will issue additional alerts as these laws continue to change. With a national Employment and Labor practice, Armstrong Teasdale is well equipped to address the evolving obligations of U.S. employers.