Hairstyle and Criminal History Laws Aim to Combat Race Discrimination

Ribbon image with I have a dream
XpertHR, XpertHR Blog, January 16, 2020
Beth Zoller

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s been almost 60 years since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recited these historic words, sparking the Civil Rights Movement and eventually new laws providing workplace protections based on protected class status such as Title VII.

The American workplace has become increasingly diverse, and most employers understand that it’s illegal to discriminate based on protected class. However, discrimination is not always overt and workplace policies seemingly crafted for well-intended business reasons may result in unintended race discrimination.

So, as we remember Dr. King, it’s worth highlighting two new types of laws that are specifically aimed at combating disparate impact discrimination against black workers or other minority groups.

Hair Discrimination Laws

Many employers have a legitimate business interest in developing and implementing personal appearance policies regarding hairstyle and grooming. These policies may require employees to look clean, neat and professional for health and safety reasons or to project a certain public image.

However, employers must tread carefully if such policies prohibit certain hairstyles or require employees to wear a particular hairstyle. While seemingly neutral, such policies may have a disparate impact on black workers and amount to race discrimination.

A number of states and localities have enacted hairstyle discrimination laws in recent months, including:

  • California;
  • New Jersey;
  • New York;
  • Cincinnati, Ohio; and
  • Montgomery County, Maryland.

These laws expand the definition of race to include discrimination based on traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles, such as braids, dreadlocks and twists. They also generally implement the following measures:

  • Protect black hairstyles as racial characteristics because they are an inherent part of black identity;
  • Prohibit employers from taking adverse action against an employee or applicant based on hairstyle;
  • Prohibit employers from banning braids, locks, twists and other hairstyles historically associated with race; and
  • Prohibit employers from requiring employees to alter the state of their hair (i.e., straighten or relax) to conform to the company’s appearance standards.

As a result, employers may not restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with black communities or request that employees or applicants change or hide their hairstyle to promote a certain corporate image, either because of customer preference or based on abstract health or safety concerns.