Prohibited workplace discrimination can take many forms. In a significant step for employees in New York City, racial discrimination based on hairstyles was recently prohibited by the city’s Commission on Human Rights. For men and women who wear their hair in natural hairstyles, this marks a major step in workplace equality. Natural hairstyles, according to the New York City law, include dreadlocks, cornrows, braids, twists, and Afros, among others. For many African-American employees who have experienced racial discrimination in employment due to their hairstyle, they now have a new remedy in one city; the first of its kind.
Employees are protected in the employment process, which covers hiring, promotion and raises, benefits, and termination. Employees cannot be treated differently due to race or national origin in the workplace under federal and additional state laws. However, the New York City law is the first of its kind to specifically outlaw hairstyle discrimination and resulted from a growing number of cases where employees’ hairstyles were targeted. The belief is that hair is an integral part of personal identity and that workers have the right to maintain natural hairstyles.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights calls harassment and discrimination based on hair a part of racist stereotypes. New York City’s law applies to discrimination at school, in the workplace, and in public spaces. It came about after complaints at four New York businesses. Businesses can still require guidelines that apply to all employees, such as hairnets for health or safety reasons. Diversity training can mitigate negative workplace practices and help employees become aware of their rights. Employers can now review their policies and assess how inclusive they are for all employees. If employers do not comply, they face investigations, fines, and prosecution in New York City.
Armed Forces Make Changes
Two branches of the armed forces in the past several years have also changed their rules to permit hairstyles that are worn in African-American culture; both the Marines and the Army lifted bans on certain hairstyles, like dreadlocks, for service members. In New Jersey, an African-American high school wrestler was told he would not be able to participate in a wrestling match if he did not cut off his dreadlocks in a case that was covered widely in the news media and resulted in a state civil rights investigation. Prohibited discrimination also includes negative comments, ethnic slurs, and other verbal or physical conduct that creates a hostile workplace.