Last month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released new guidelines (available here) that explicitly protect “the rights of New Yorkers to maintain natural hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” Penalties for employers include fines up to $250,000 per infraction with unlimited civil damages.

The Commission is not creating a new protected trait in protecting an individual’s right to wear their hair a certain way. Rather, the commission is acknowledging that current standards of formal and professional appearance, formed over the preceding centuries, favor a typically Anglo-American standard of appearance: shaved faces, and close-cut, combed-straight hairstyles. As a result of this inherently biased preference, employees of color have long suffered significant physical and psychological harm resulting from the forced choice between their continued employment and their cultural identity. As noted by the Commission on Human Rights, members of the Black community, for instance, are far more likely to suffer from severe skin, hair, and scalp damage due to repeated exposure to manipulation and chemical treatment of their hair in efforts to conform to traditionally White standards of appearance.

While these guidelines only apply to employers within the five boroughs of New York City, the new guidelines should be taken to heart by employers nationwide. Employers must be watchful to ensure that such a policy is not being applied in a manner which targets grooming practices, hair textures, or styles associated with a particular racial group, as such disparate treatment could lead to legal liability.

Stokes Wagner encourages all employers and human beings alike to be aware of the blind spots of inherent bias in their actions, employment practices, and policies. As such, while taking the time to re-evaluate company grooming policies as a result of this article, think about the other policies and practices in place and consider each’s potential for disparate impact on employees in protected classes. Taking the time to understand these inherent biases is not only important to avoid liability for discrimination; it makes us all better global and corporate citizens.

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