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

Confronting Racial Bias in the Workplace-How to Avoid Becoming the Next Hashtag Movement

Q.  How do I help my company avoid unconscious bias in the workplace?

A.  A bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared with another. We all have biases. Biases can be based on any number of stereotypes, whether it is race, gender, age, national origin, religion, etc.  In a perfect world, individuals would not act on their biases, however, our world is far from perfect and employees can and do bring their biases to work.

When employees bring biases into the workplace, whether they are overt or subtle, the consequences can be damaging for the employer, especially in this social media age, when racial biases can and will be caught on camera and “go viral” almost instantly. A recent example of such racial biases resulting in racial profiling occurred in a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, when two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend.  The police arrested the two men who, nine hours later, were released without being charged.  The arrest was videotaped by a bystander, who commented that the men did nothing wrong.  The incident resulted in protests in Philadelphia and a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that took on a trending life of its own.  Starbucks however, took swift action by terminating the store manager, apologizing to the two men, and announcing plans to close 8,000 U.S. locations for a day in May to provide a racial-bias education program.

A similar incident occurred recently at an LA Fitness facility in Secaucus, New Jersey, when three LA Fitness employees called the police on a black man, who was an active, paying member of the fitness club for no apparent reason, than believing that he did not belong there. LA Fitness immediately terminated the employees involved, issued a public apology and stated that it is exploring potential training content and opportunities to better train the staff.

Stories like these are not new, however, the platform to raise awareness of racial bias and profiling has expanded with social media. So the question remains, what can and should employers do to confront racial biases and avoid becoming the next #boycott{insert Company name} hashtag?

First and foremost, companies must educate, train, and re-train their employees. In industries that are open to the public, such as retail, for example, employers should regularly conduct racial bias training upon hiring as well as on an annual basis.  This is particularly important in industries with high turnover to ensure that all employees are receiving training.  To be most effective, the training should include real life scenarios that are applicable to the industry where employees can openly talk through how to handle certain issues.  Next, employers should make sure they have clearly defined policies on hand.  These policies should be reviewed during the training and be accessible for reference to all employees.

Even more important than having fair policies, employees must be taught how to consistently enforce such policies. For example, if a coffee shop has a policy that requires patrons to order food/coffee in order to use the internet, bathroom or remain on the premises (which Starbucks does not), this must be enforced by all stores and applied to all patrons, regardless of race, gender, national origin, etc.  If the company has concerns as to whether certain policies will be applied consistently, the most prudent approach is to discard that policy altogether.  Additionally, if a company enforces policies/restrictions regarding entering or remaining in a location open to the public, it should be clearly posted.

Even with the best training programs and clearest policies, a company may still end up on the wrong side of the racial bias equation. So what now?  What should a company do if one or more of their employees exhibits racial bias or profiling towards a customer or member of the public?  Even assuming that the incident does not “go viral,” employers should investigate any incident of alleged racial profiling, including reviewing any video footage and witness accounts.  If the allegations are confirmed, the employer must take corrective action.  In today’s society, there is a low tolerance for racial, ethnic or religious profiling, and failing to do anything other than termination (assuming the profiling is confirmed), could result in public backlash.  The response must be quick.  However, employers must balance the need for speed with the need to conduct a proper investigation.  Companies must also offer the individual who was the victim of profiling a sincere apology and consider including some type of monetary award, depending on the circumstances.  Additionally, employers should review their policies and take the opportunity to re-train employees and redistribute applicable policies.

Kali T. Wellington-James

Circuit Split on Sexual Orientation Discrimination Continues With New Second Circuit Opinion

Q.  Is sexual orientation a protected category under federal discrimination laws?

A.  It depends on what Circuit you are located in.  On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which exercises federal jurisdiction in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont), joined the Seventh Circuit (with jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) in holding that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Now there are two circuit court decisions ruling that sexual orientation is protected under Title VII.  These decisions conflict with at least one decision, of the Eleventh Circuit (with jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida and Georgia).

Many states and some cities and other municipalities have enacted laws that expressly and directly prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. There is, however, no federal law that directly outlaws this type of discrimination.  While we continue to wait for  Congress to act or the Supreme Court to take up a case for review, employers should consider treating sexual orientation as a protected class when making employment decisions and drafting employment policies.

For more details on this issue, click here.

Susan K. Lessack