Excerpted from a Bond Schoeneck & King PLLC Blog by Nihla F. Sikkander

“How is my hair? Does it look OK?” With employees returning to onsite work, questions regarding employers’ grooming and dress code policies are bound to crop up. When responding, employers should be cognizant of the fact that their dress code and grooming policies must comply with expanding legal protections against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles.

Why is this important? A study conducted in 2019 by the CROWN Act Coalition found that 80% of Black women were more likely to agree that they had to change their hair from its natural state to fit in at the office. The study also found that Black women fear scrutiny and discrimination when expressing their natural beauty in the workplace, where they are 1.5 times more likely than other women to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair and 83% more likely to report being judged more harshly based on her physical appearance.

The results of the CROWN Act Coalition study made an impact. Recently, anti-hairstyle discrimination reform has increased at the federal, state and local levels. In March 2021, Congress reintroduced the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act). The CROWN act proposes to prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s style or texture of hair by including an individual’s style of hair in the definition of racial discrimination. This definition includes hair that is tightly coiled or tightly curled, locks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, Afros and any other style of hair commonly associated with a race or national origin.

In the meantime, state governments have passed their own versions of the CROWN Act. These states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington and Delaware. Similar bills are pending in more than 20 additional states this year.

New York’s law, which took effect in July 2019, amended the Human Rights Law to define “race” for certain specific purposes to include but not be limited to “ancestry, color, ethnic group identification and ethnic background, and to include traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles”; and defines “protective hairstyles” to include but not be limited to, braids, locks and twists.

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