New York City recently made headlines when it passed a law that classifies mistreatment towards individuals due to their hair as a form of racial discrimination. While these guidelines apply to anyone “at work, school or in public spaces,” they are especially significant to black professionals, who deal with office scrutiny around their hair on a daily basis. The statute offers legal recourse to men and women who are unfairly targeted for wearing braids, Afros, dreadlocks, and other natural hairstyles.
A 2016 study by the Perception Institute found that American society is generally biased against women of color based on their hair, which can lead to everything from micro-aggressions to more blatant acts of discrimination in a professional environment. This bias has been confirmed by black women who share their real-life experiences in corporate settings with uncomfortable comments and behavior from colleagues and supervisors.
What impact will the New York City statute have on work environments around the country? Three California professionals weighed in with their thoughts on the new statute and what it could mean going forward.
When Dana*, an IT manager at a tech company, first read The New York Times article about the new law, she thought it was great.
“I think all [black women] have been in a situation where we face negative reactions about our hair,” she continued. “To be discriminated against for something like that makes you say to yourself, ‘Really?’”
She added that New York City is generally more progressive than other parts of the country in terms of equality and human rights, and she can see the trend gaining traction in similarly progressive states like California.
“It’s starting there, and then I think it may jump across the country, rather than spread across [to neighboring areas],” she said. “Eventually, it will at least start a conversation. What would happen if I went into a job interview in a professional setting and I wore braids? Would it be held against me?”
When asked what companies can do to proactively address issues around hair discrimination, Dana said HR should play a major part in setting the tone for company culture and professional expectations.
“If culture in HR changes, they [have the power] to push the company to change,” she explained. “When you think about the hiring process, they’re tasked with deciding [which candidate] moves forward; they’re the gatekeepers so to speak. If they set boundaries, any potential issues may stop there.”
On the same note, Carmen*, an HR manager in the nonprofit sector, explained that employers must invest in being knowledgeable about cultural practices and what might constitute discrimination going forward.
“People have a voice and employers should listen,” she said. “For HR personnel, it’s a reminder of what being respectful, having an open mind, and being flexible, is really about. Some HR managers are more conservative [about hairstyles], but in California, laws are always changing.
“I think this might steer conversations about culture [in a different direction]. A lot of times people think of culture as different ethnicities coming from other countries, but there are many subsets of culture within the United States, so hopefully this will help to shift that mindset.”
Jessica Levinson, Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, shared insight on the legal significance of the new statute and how its potential influence may resonate in workplace culture.
“[This new statute is] a very strong legal acknowledgment that there should not only be diversity of speech, but diversity of dress, and how you wear your hair is a way of expressing yourself. Just as [employers] couldn’t tell [employees they are] not allowed to wear blue, this statute tells people that you won’t be legally punished for wearing your hair the way you want,” Levinson said.
When asked about the subtle applications of company policies that don’t explicitly ban ethnic hairstyles, Levinson references a 2015 case in which a Muslim woman was denied a job at retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because of her headscarf. The company claimed the wear of a headscarf did not align with the image of its “look policy,” which banned caps and black clothing. Levinson believes the New York City statute will challenge companies who implement policies with hair and dress guidelines that exclude those of specific ethnicities.
“There are a lot of [company guidelines] that appear neutral, such as a ‘short or clean haircut’ policy, but in application, could actually be discriminatory.
“A private company may say they want a certain look or appearance, and initially it seems as if [they have the right] to make that determination,” Levinson continued, “but once it’s applied, it becomes clear how it can be problematic for minorities, and that’s what this law is trying to address.”
While recognizing that cities and states with conservative jurisdiction will be less likely to follow New York City’s example, Levinson echoed Dana’s thoughts on the idea that more liberal areas may implement similar laws.
“For some, it may make no difference whatsoever, while others may think it’s a great idea,” she said. “It depends on the political makeup of the county, city, or state. For more progressive jurisdictions, this may be the beginning of a trend, but for the more conservative, I don’t predict them latching onto it in any way.”
While New York City is the first to enforce a law regarding hair discrimination, employers in other regions shouldn’t wait for a similar law to pass in their city or state to address this issue proactively. Here are a few actions to take to ensure that potential and current employees are judged by their qualifications rather than their hairstyles.
Start the Discussion Now in Staff Training
Many employers hold yearly, quarterly or monthly mandated training on new policy procedures, harassment awareness, etc. These are the perfect opportunities to include best company culture practices,employee expectations, and how corporate dress guidelines relate to the company’s brand and business goals. Encourage a dialogue now on how those goals can be met while accommodating more diverse images of beauty and professionalism. Encourage dialogue among staff.
Include Natural Hairstyles in Dress Code Guidelines
Visual aids can be highly efficient in promoting the inclusion of a variety of hairstyles in a professional setting. While traditional company attire guidelines often feature men and women with hairstyles that follow European aesthetic conventions, including images of individuals with natural hair sends the message that there are multiple ways to look professional.
Make Diversity Central to the Company Culture
“Diversity” can be a trendy buzzword employers use to present a forward-thinking exterior…while making little or no progress around promoting diversity internally. Creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace is not to be a one-and-done task. Like any habit, it must be done consistently and intentionally to make an impact.
Ongoing dialogue, even outside of regularly scheduled training, should be encouraged among staff. This starts with senior leadership and HR personnel, who must set the tone. Simultaneously, feedback from more junior staff can help to address issues that leadership may be unaware of.
“[New] regulations and statutes are always coming down the pipeline,” Carmen said when speaking on the value of strengthening company culture. “Oftentimes, they reflect cultural changes so it’s important to be aware and be open to things [some employers] may not be used to.”
There is Still Work to Be Done
While this new statute indicates advancement in equality, whether these guidelines will be enforced around the country remains to be seen. As recent as 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Chastity Jones, a black woman in Alabama whose job offer was rescinded when she refused to cut her dreadlocks.
The hope is that employers will assess potential and current employees on their qualifications rather than hairstyle not because they are legally required to, but because black men and women deserve the same level of respect and sensitivity as individuals from other cultures, especially in the workplace.
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.