Comments on Social Media about an Employee’s National Origin Could Lead to Allegations of Discrimination

Q: Over the summer, I saw that President Trump tweeted that four minority Democrat congresswomen should “go back” to where they came from. What Human Resources lessons can be learned from the President’s tweet?

A: In July 2019, President Trump tweeted that certain Democrat congresswomen “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world” should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The President affirmed that he was referring to Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).  All are U.S. citizens, all are minorities, and only one was actually born outside the United States.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. As many commentators have noted, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance specifically provides that the following types of conduct are examples of harassment based on national origin: “insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘go back to where you came from,’ whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.”  If particularly severe or pervasive, such conduct could rise to the level of unlawful harassment. However, a company does not need to wait for an employee’s conduct to become illegal before taking action.

While we do not take a position on the politics of the current administration, the President’s tweets, if made by a manager or coworker, could be considered a Title VII violation or a violation of a company’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies. In fact, there are numerous cases where companies faced significant liability as a result of employee comments similar to those made by the President.  In just one example from 2012, a California medical center paid nearly $1 million to settle a national origin discrimination suit where Filipino-American hospital workers alleged that they were told to “go back to the Philippines.” See also Cerezo-Martin v. Agroman, 213 F. Supp. 3d 318 (D.P.R. 2016) (denying defendant’s summary judgment motion as to plaintiff’s hostile environment claim where there was evidence that plaintiff was repeatedly told “to ‘go back to [his] country’ and to stop taking jobs away from Puerto Ricans.”); Brewster v. City of Poughkeepsie, 447 F. Supp. 2d 342 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (trial court refusing to overturn jury verdict for plaintiff on a national-origin based hostile environment claim where there was testimony that defendant’s employees said to plaintiff “Speak English. Go back to your own country if you want to speak Spanish. You’re in our country.”

In addition, the fact that discriminatory comments may be made outside of the workplace on social media neither insulates an employer from liability nor protects an employee who may have violated company policies.

But wait—what about free speech?

Despite what many employees may think, in nearly all instances, the First Amendment does not apply in the private sector workplace and workers are afforded no protection for their speech—especially speech that is harassing or discriminatory.

If an employee or supervisor in your workplace makes comments similar to those made by the President, your Human Resources Department should conduct a thorough investigation and then take prompt remedial action—up to and including termination—if it is determined that company policies were violated. Failure to act could result in your company facing an EEOC charge or lawsuit for national origin-based discrimination or harassment. One of the best ways to prevent discriminatory comments and behavior from occurring in the workplace is through preparation and training. The attorneys in Pepper Hamilton’s Labor and Employment Practice Group are here to help you update non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, provide training to employees and managers, assist with investigations, and provide advice when employees make insensitive remarks.

Lee Tankle

New York Now Prohibits Hairstyle Discrimination

Q: I heard New York prohibits employers from discriminating based on hairstyle.  What does that mean?

A: In July 2019, New York State passed legislation that amended the definition of race under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hairstyles” include, but are not limited to, braids, locks, and twists.  The legislation became effective upon signing.

Although employees previously could allege that employer grooming and dress code policies were discriminatory based on race, the burden was on the employee to show the link between the prohibited hairstyle and race. The legislation eases this burden by making the connection explicit.

The New York state legislation follows the lead of New York City, which released legal enforcement guidance in February 2019 that specifically prohibits workplace grooming policies that may discriminate against Black people, and more generally prohibits workplace grooming policies that target communities of color, religious minorities, or other communities protected under the New York City Human Rights Law. For more details on New York City’s enforcement guidance, please see our previous post here.

California recently passed similar legislation, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020. The Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act (“CROWN”) amends the definition of race under the Fair Housing and Employment Act to include “traits historically associated with race, such as hair texture and protective hairstyles,” including “braids, locks, and twists.”  CROWN also amends California’s Education Code to prohibit such discrimination in public schools.

To ensure compliance with these laws, employers should review personal appearance and grooming policies to ensure they are facially neutral and are applied in a uniform manner. For example, in a workplace where hair must be tied back for hygienic and/or safety reasons, a policy should simply state that hair longer than a certain length must be tied back, rather than prohibiting or calling out specific styles.  As another example, employers must ensure that a policy that requires “professional” hairstyles is not written or enforced in a manner that disproportionately affects people of any particular race.

Jessica Rothenberg

New York Human Rights Law Amendments Effective October 12, 2019

Q: I am a New York employer. What are the key parts of the new amendments to the New York Human Rights law and when do they go into effect?

A.  As we detailed in an earlier post, New York state recently passed a bill that makes numerous changes to the New York Human Rights Act (“NYHRL”). Governor Cuomo signed the bill on August 12, 2019, and most of the amendments go into effect on October 11, 2019.

Among the amendments that go into effect on October 11, 2019 are the significant expansion of protected categories under the NYHRL to include age, creed, color, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, domestic violence, victim status or because an individual has opposed any practices prohibited by the NYHRL or participated in any proceeding under the NYHRL. The amendments also make it much easier for a plaintiff to demonstrate harassment, changing the standard of liability from “severe and pervasive” to whether the alleged harasser subjected the victim to “inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

Also effective October 11, 2019, New York employers are prohibited from including non-disclosure provisions in a settlement agreement of any discrimination claim (not just claims for sexual harassment), unless the complainant prefers to include the provision, has 21 days to consider it, and seven days to revoke it.

Other aspects of the new law have later effective dates. Specifically, effective February 8, 2020, the NYHRL will apply to all employers, rather than those with four or more employees. Also, effective August 11, 2020, the statute of limitations for filing a sexual harassment claim with the New York State Division on Human Rights will increase from one to three years.

Jessica Rothenberg

New York Enacts Broad Changes to New York Human Rights Law

Q: I am a New York employer. What should I know about the recent amendments to the New York Human Rights Law?

A: In June 2019, New York State approved a bill that makes numerous changes to the New York Human Rights Law (“NYHRL”), governing discrimination and harassment.  Governor Cuomo has not yet signed the bill, but is expected to shortly.

As explained in more detail below, the legislation significantly increases the NYHRL’s coverage by expanding the definitions of “harassment” and “employer.” The legislation also prohibits non-disclosure clauses in any settlement agreement involving discrimination allegations. Finally, the legislation expands employers’ sexual harassment training obligations, and extends the statute of limitations for filing sexual harassment claims with the New York State Division on Human Rights to three years.

Definition of Harassment

The NYHRL currently prohibits harassment based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or national origin. The amendments expand these protected categories to include age, creed, color, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, domestic violence victim status, or because an individual has opposed any practices prohibited by the NYHRL or participated in any proceeding under the NYHRL.

The amendments also significantly expand the definition of harassment. Currently, to prove harassment under the NYHRL, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the harassment was “severe and pervasive.”  Under the amendments, a plaintiff need only show that the harassment “subjects an individual to inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”  Employers will no longer be permitted to rely on the affirmative defense that the employer had an effective complaint procedure, the individual did not take advantage of it, and there was no adverse employment action.  Rather, the employer’s only affirmative defense is if the harassing conduct “does not rise above the level of what a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”  Lowering the standard from “severe or pervasive” harassment to harassment that rises above “petty slights or trial inconveniences” greatly expands the universe of potential harassment claims and aligns the New York state law with the standards set forth in the New York City Human Rights Law.

The new definitions will be effective 60 days after the bill become law.

Definition of Employer

The amendments remove the NYHRL’s current carve-out for employers with fewer than four employees. Beginning 180 days after the bill become law, the NYHRL will apply to all employers regardless of size

Inclusion of Non-Disclosure Clauses in Settlement Agreements

New York employers may recall that, in 2018, the state passed a new law prohibiting non-disclosure provisions in any settlement agreement of a sexual harassment claim unless the complainant prefers to include the provision, has 21 days to consider it, and has a seven-day revocation period. The amendments expand these prohibitions to settlement agreements of any discrimination claim, rather than just claims of sexual harassment.  In addition, non-disclosure provisions are void to the extent that they prohibit or restrict the complainant from participating in an investigation by a government agency or disclosing any facts necessary to receive unemployment insurance or other public benefits.

These changes will be effective 60 days after the bill becomes law.

Sexual Harassment Training

The amendments expand upon last year’s new law requiring employers to give annual sexual harassment training. Employers will be required to train employees and distribute policies in the employees’ primary language.  The New York Commissioner of Labor will create versions of the template sexual harassment training and policy in other languages.  If there is not a template available from the Commissioner in an employee’s primary language, the employer can provide the policy and training in English.

Statute of Limitations

Effective one year after the bill becomes law, the statute of limitations for filing sexual harassment claims with the New York State Division on Human Rights will be increased to three years, as compared to the current one year statute of limitations.

Steps for Compliance

To prepare for the amendments, employers should review and update all relevant policies and training materials. While anti-harassment should always be an area of focus for employers, employers should be especially aware of any potentially harassing situation given the forthcoming lower standard for harassment under New York State law.

Jessica Rothenberg

Hair Styles May Be Protected Under Discrimination Laws

Q: Is it lawful to require employees or applicants to style their hair in a certain manner?

A: As with most employment-related questions, the answer is it depends.  While employers are generally allowed to adopt basic grooming policies, employers should seek to adopt policies that do not have a disparate impact on minorities and other persons protected by anti-discrimination laws.

In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) generated headlines by releasing a legal enforcement guidance on race discrimination on the basis of hair.  The guidelines are designed to prohibit workplace grooming policies that may discriminate against Black people.  The Commission defines the term “Black people” to “include those who identify as African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin-x/a/o or otherwise having African or Black ancestry.”  Per the Commission: “Bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people are often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes that Black hairstyles are unprofessional.”  The Commission takes the position that the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) protects the right of Black people to maintain their natural hairstyle, which “includes the right to maintain natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

According to the Commission, grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or prohibit natural hair and hairstyles often associated with Black people violate the NYCHRL anti-discrimination provisions, including the section prohibiting discrimination in employment. Employers prohibiting employees from wearing their hair in cornrows, Afros, and other hairstyles associated with Black people risk facing liability under the NYCHRL.  The Commission stated: “Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.”  Under the NYCHRL, it is therefore discriminatory to refuse to hire a Black applicant with cornrows because the hairstyle does not project the “image” that a Company is trying to represent—and companies may not use customer preference or health and safety concerns as an excuse for a prejudiced policy.

The Commission noted in a footnote of its legal enforcement guidance that grooming or appearance policies that “generally target communities of color, religious minorities, or other communities protected under the NYCHRL are also unlawful.” The Commission gave as examples: (i) a Sikh applicant being denied employment because of his religiously-maintained uncut hair and turban, (ii) an Orthodox Jewish employee ordered to shave his beard and cut his payot (sidelocks and sideburns), (iii) a salesperson being required to shave his beard despite a medical condition that makes it painful to do so, (iv) an older employee with gray hair being threatened that she will lose her job if she does not color her hair, and (v) a male server being ordered to cut his ponytail where similar grooming policies are not imposed on female servers.

This is not the first time a government agency has attempted to remedy employment discrimination related to Black hairstyles. In 2013, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) unsuccessfully brought suit against an Alabama insurance claims company because the insurance company allegedly violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against a Black applicant because she wore dreadlocks. See EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgmt. Sols., 852 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 2016).  In that case, Plaintiff Chastity Jones was offered a position as a customer service representative.  Prior to her start date, Ms. Jones was advised that the company did not permit dreadlocks and that she needed to cut them.  When Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair, her job offer was rescinded.  Although recognizing that dreadlocks were a common hairstyle worn by Black people, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering employers in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) ultimately concluded that dreadlocks were not an immutable characteristic, and that the EEOC could not state a claim for intentional race discrimination against a company seeking to enforce its “race-neutral” grooming policy.  The United States Supreme Court declined to hear Ms. Jones’ appeal.

Although the NYCHRL only covers employers with four or more employees in New York City, employers nationwide should pay close attention to the Commission’s guidance as it could influence courts and other government agencies throughout the country. Before implementing any grooming policies—including those that could adversely impact individuals in a protected category of employment—Human Resources professionals should consult with qualified legal counsel to adopt lawful policies that do not create a “hairy” situation.

–Lee Tankle