- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law Friday amended legislation which explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of natural hair or hairstyle. New York is the second state to pass a hair discrimination ban, following a California law passed in recent weeks. New York City issued guidance prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle for business operating in the city in February of this year.
- The hair discrimination law is to go into effect immediately. Its provisions cover hair texture, "protective hairstyles" such as braids, locks and twists, and other traits associated with a particular race. Discrimination against employees with afros is already protected against under Title VII, as they are considered by the federal courts an "immutable racial characteristic."
- An alliance of the National Urban League, Western Center on Law & Poverty, Dove, and Color Of Change, called the CROWN Coalition, is lobbying for hair discrimination state legislation across the country; a similar bill to New York's has been introduced in the New Jersey state legislature.
As the state-wide New York anti-discrimination law has taken immediate effect, employers operating there will need to ensure that dress codes and grooming policies are inclusive and race-neutral both in their language and in that no particular demographic within the company is being disproportionately targeted.
Laura Fant, an associate in the Labor and Employment Law Department at Proskauer Rose LLP, told HR Dive that she has found a common misstep is HR professionals being "overly detailed" in their policies: "For example, if long hair can pose an actual safety hazard in the workplace, instead of listing out specific types of hairstyles that could pose a risk, instead simply state that hair must be shorter than a certain length or otherwise secured at all times."
A 2017 study by the Perception Institute found that 1 in 5 black women surveyed felt pressured to straighten their hair for work, and that textured hairstyles were consistently perceived as less "professional." According to media reports, in both New York City and California, legislators raised the issue of Eurocentric workplace standards of professionalism which contain underlying racial bias.
Employers would be prudent to make sure that grooming and dress codes are free of bias and that their recruiting and onboarding processes don't place more emphasis on grooming and dress codes for new hires with natural hair or protective hairstyles, as it may drive away top talent.
Inclusivity efforts also must extend beyond recruiting and onboarding. Studies show that women of color who feel isolated in the workplace are more likely to consider leaving, and that "microaggressions" can damage working relationships. Legal experts say HR must take complaints of offensive language or racialized microaggressions seriously, or risk legal action under anti-discrimination statutes. Following up on employee reports of discrimination or microaggressions and demonstrating a company's commitment to fostering an inclusive culture are commonly cited best practices.
HR should respond to issues of hair discrimination in the same way they handle any other discrimination complaint, Fant said. "When somebody comes to HR to make a formal complaint or if behavior is observed in the workplace that suggests that hairstyle discrimination may be occurring, then HR should take the responsibility to investigate the allegation promptly and thoroughly," she added.