Should employers have the right to tell employees how they can wear their hair, assuming that their hairstyle has no impact on anyone’s health or safety? On what basis should anyone decide what hairstyles are appropriate and inappropriate for any particular workplace?
Can some employers’ lack of familiarity with hairstyles popular among cultures and ethnic groups other than their own cause them to ban those hairstyles? Can that be considered discriminatory?
In fact, “hair discrimination” in the workplace has become a concern — so much so that some lawmakers are taking action to prohibit hairstyles popular largely among African Americans.
In February of this year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights published guidelines that make the prohibition of hairstyles including Afros, cornrows and braids illegal. The commission created a new protected class — African American employees who have natural hair. Employers who prohibit “natural” hairstyles may be fined as much as $250,000. They also can’t tell employees who have these hairstyles that they can’t be in positions where they’re interacting face-to-face with customers.
The commission wrote, “Treating an individual less well than others because of their actual or perceived race violates the New York City Human Rights Law…Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics…because they are an inherent part of Black identity.”
California state lawmakers are also taking action to prohibit hair discrimination. Last month, a bill called the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (C.R.O.W.N.) Act passed unanimously in the Senate.
If your employer is requiring you to change your hairstyle or straighten your hair or take other action with it that you believe is discriminatory or if you’re terminated or demoted for your hairstyle, you should bring your concerns to the attention of management or Human Resources. If you’re not able to resolve the issue within your workplace, it may be wise to determine what legal options you have.