When I am explaining the concept of at-will employment, to illustrate the point that an employer can fire an employee for anything so long as it does not violate public policy or statute, I will sometimes say, “He could decide he doesn’t like the color of your hair and fire you for that.” But an interesting case out of New Jersey might prove me wrong.
According to an article in the New York Post, the NYPD sent out an anti-bias message this month to Manhattan sergeants and lieutenants, who were told that redhead harassment would not be tolerated.
“We’re apparently victims now,” said one cop with ginger locks. “We’re protected from discrimination.”
No lawsuit has been filed against the city, but the feds say a claim alleging unfair treatment over red hair would be supported by federal law, which bars workplace bias against applicants and employees based on race, national origin, skin color, religion, sex or disability.
Wait a second. What does hair color have to do with any of those protected classes? That’s were things get interesting. Think about it. If you had to guess the nationality of someone with red hair, what would you pick? You’d probably guess Ireland, because people with red hair are found in higher numbers in Britain and Ireland than elsewhere, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So if someone could prove discrimination against redheads, that would mean that there is a disparate impact against those of Irish dissent, and nationality is a protected class.
These are the sort of mental games that only attorneys play. In the real world, it would be very unlikely that anyone is going to suffer adverse job action or discrimination based on being a redhead. As one retired officer quoted by the New York Post stated, “To put redheads in a protective class — that’s ridiculous!” However, the analysis is still useful to illustrate how a seemingly “innocent” form of bias can create illegal discrimination.