An incident that went viral and gained widespread attention last year has fortunately led to New Jersey signing a new mandate into law that makes it illegal to discriminate based on hairstyles and other “traits” historically associated with race. The incident involved a high school wrestler who was forced to cut off his dreadlocks by the referee so that he could compete, else he and his team would face a forfeit. The bill is titled “Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act,” indicating that it does not only apply to schools, but also discrimination in the workplace and other contexts, such as housing.
The legislation is technically an amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which contains a definition for race, as well as an additional protected category for “protective hairstyle.” In the amendment, race is defined to include a number of traits that have historically been associated with race, such as hair type and texture. Additional, explicitly protected hairstyles in the amendment also include braids, twists, and locks.
Previous Guidance on Illegal Discrimination Based On Hair
The amendment also clarifies certain portions of the Guidance that was released earlier this year by the state. In addition to hairstyles protected by being historically associated with a race, it also includes those associated with particular religions. Specifically, the Guidance states that employers cannot:
- Put forth appearance or grooming policies that limit or restrict hairstyles associated with Black ethnic, racial, and cultural identity
- Selectively enforce other types of policies that have the effect of discriminating against some and not others; for example, “professional appearance” requirements that allow some employees to maintain long hair while Black employees with braids are told to change their hairstyle
- Implement other policies that have the effect of limiting certain hairstyles associated with Black people in order to protect a certain “corporate image” or “customer preference”
In addition, any policies that have the effect of a limitation that are put forth based on health and safety must be rooted in “objective, factual evidence” that the hairstyle in question “presents a materially enhanced risk of harm to the wearer or others.”
Contact a New Jersey Employment Discrimination Attorney to Ensure Compliance
In signing the amendment into law, New Jersey follows other states such as New York that have recently banned discrimination based on hairstyles. As a result of both the Guidance and the amendment to the law, employers should consider reviewing their workplace policies with the assistance of an employment attorney in order to ensure that they are in compliance with the law.