Is Discrimination Against Redheads Illegal in the Workplace?

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.

2 thoughts on “Is Discrimination Against Redheads Illegal in the Workplace?

  1. JLW

    “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.”

    You’re basing this statement on what, exactly? To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is likely to happen – just that I’ve heard my entire life that redheads “aren’t really” discriminated against and are “too sensitive” when they are singled-out, bullied, etc. Meanwhile targeting or discriminating based on almost every other physical characteristic is recognized as either racist (skin color, hair texture, etc.) or widely recognized as inappropriate (weight, nose size, etc).

    To be clear, I don’t think any of this discrimination should be illegal; I’m just not sure most people realize how often redheads are targeted and discriminated against, only to have others tell them to man up and get over it.

    1. Aaron Morris Post author

      Just anecdotal evidence I suppose, but my sample size is pretty large. I’ve known a lot of redheads in my day, and although many have touted the advantages of being a redhead, since it is the rarest of hair colors and therefore distinguishing, none have ever stated that they suffered discrimination on the basis of their hair color. Have you had a different experience?


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