[With special thanks to our summer associate Lennox Mark for his contribution to this post.]
From coast to coast, state and local governments are debating and enacting legislation to broaden workplace protections for employee dress and grooming practices. And not surprisingly, employee complaints regarding employer grooming policies — that such policies contribute to discrimination by unduly burdening certain racial characteristics, religious beliefs or health conditions — are on the rise.
In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a statement of legal enforcement guidance expanding the definition of prohibited race discrimination to include discrimination based on hairstyle. The Commission explained that workplace “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hairstyles or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate [local law].” By expressly including hairstyle as a protected characteristic, the Commission effectively created a new legal claim for Black employees who suffer adverse employment actions because their natural hairstyles fail to comport with previously accepted workplace rules.