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Is Your Grooming Policy Legal?

GLOSSARY [gentrification] (noun)

The conversion of a deteriorated or aging neighborhood into a more affluent area, often met with resistance from established residents, as in the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn (see page 14).


The New York City Commission on Human Rights has issued guidelines regarding racial discrimination on the basis of hairstyles, reaffirming the rights of all New Yorkers to maintain hairstyles associated with their cultural, racial, or ethnic identities. For black people, this means the right to maintain treated or untreated hairstyles, as well as the right to keep hair either in an uncut or untrimmed state.

The city’s Human Rights Law prohibits, among other things, discrimination practices in employment, and it covers employers with four or more employees, including co-op and condo boards. If your board hires independent contractors to maintain the landscaping at your property, there’s an argument to be made that those workers will count as employees under the Human Rights Law.

An individual claiming racial discrimination can either file a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights within one year of the allegedly discriminatory act, or file a complaint in the state courts within three years. The law has teeth. The commission can fine an employer up to $250,000, and there is no cap on damages.

that the hair textures and hairstyles most closely associated with people of African descent are “natural hair texture that is tightly coiled or tightly curled as well as hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros.” Such hairstyles are protected racial characteristics because the commission finds they are “an inherent part of black identity.

Boards can adopt a grooming policy that requires employees to maintain a “neat and orderly” appearance. Such a policy would violate the Human Rights Law if it prohibits the textures or hairstyles associated with people of African descent; bans dyeing or head-shaving only by black employees; requires a black employee to hide his or her hair under a hat or cap; and/or requires black employees to cut or alter their hair or risk losing their jobs.

While there is no “magic bullet” to protect against a potential lawsuit, boards should make sure that any grooming policy is applied uniformly. For example, it would be acceptable to require all front-door personnel, regardless of race or gender, to wear a cap.

With its high fines and potential for unlimited damages, this is not a law boards can afford to flout.

Andrew I. Bart is an associate at the law firm Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel.

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