Hair Based Discrimination

The NYC Commission on Human Rights is a government organization tasked with the interpretation and enforcement of New York City’s Human Rights Law. NYC Admin. Code Title 8, §8-101. The commission’s purpose is to “eliminate and prevent discrimination . . . in employment, public accommodation, housing and other real estate.” Id.

In February of 2019, the NYC Commission on Human Rights issued a new Legal Enforcement Guidance detailing prohibitions against discrimination via hair restrictions. . While the majority of guideline is drafted within the specific context of prohibiting bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with African Americans, the guideline makes clear that bans or restrictions on hairstyles associated with other racial, ethnic, cultural and/or religious groups are similarly restricted.

Within the scope of employment issues, employer rules which require people to straighten, relax, cut or maintain their hair length (including facial hair) may be prohibited. The commission clarifies that an employer can impose rules that require a “work appropriate” appearance, however, such rules cannot target specific hair textures styles that identify with a protected class. In short, appearance policies which, intentionally or unintentionally, target race, religious minorities, disabled persons, protected age groups, or gender are prohibited.

These guideline is applicable beyond the employer/employee area. As stated above, NYC’s Human Right’s law applies to, inter alia, places of public accommodation, which includes “providers, whether licensed or unlicensed, of goods, services, facilities, accommodations, advantages or privileges of any kind, and places, whether licensed or unlicensed, where goods, services, facilities, accommodations, advantages or privileges of any kind are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available.” NYC Admin. Code, Title 8, §8-107(4). This broad definition includes, among other things, stores, malls, recreational facilities and private schools. Policies and enforcement based on hair styles which, intentionally or unintentionally, target protected classes are similarly prohibited.

While the guidelines are subject to change in the future, and further clarification may be forthcoming from the Courts, employers, purveyors and property owners should consult with their legal counsel to protect against possible violations.