Race discrimination in employment can take many forms. Sometimes an employer commits an adverse act against an employee that is unambiguously based on that employee’s race, but it is usually that obvious. Employment policies that do not appear to be motivated by any sort of racial animus, can still have a substantially disproportionate impact on employees of certain races. Workplace dress codes and grooming standards, for example, can reinforce racial discrimination by placing undue burdens on people who identify as African American or Black. These policies often, without a clear business justification, prohibit Black employees from wearing their hair in certain common hairstyles, including natural hairstyles. New York City issued guidelines in early 2019 about hairstyle discrimination. The state legislatures in California and New York later enacted laws adding hairstyle discrimination to state law definitions of race discrimination. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature would make similar changes to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). If you are concerned that your hairstyle may be related to a dispute you are having at work, reach out to a New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer today.
Employment discrimination on the basis of race is prohibited under the NJLAD. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The statute does not currently provide a definition for “race.” It relies on common usage, but even in everyday conversation, the word “race” is fraught with subtext. Dictionary definitions like “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits” do not capture the full meaning of the term. New York City sought to address this lack of detail in its antidiscrimination law by focusing on hairstyle discrimination.
In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) published guidelines on “race discrimination on the basis of hair.” It described this as “discrimination based on characteristics and cultural practices associated with being Black.” The term “Black,” as used by the CHR, includes people who identify as African or African American, as well as people with Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx heritage. Workplace dress codes and grooming standards “are often rooted in white standards of appearance,” the CHR stated, and contribute to perceptions “that Black hairstyles are unprofessional.” Many such policies do not allow Black employees to maintain natural hairstyles. This requires them to undergo treatments to straighten their hair that are both expensive and damaging.