Close Shave: Is it Legal to Set a No-Beard Policy for Male Staff?

by Pat DiDomenico on November 1, 2013

Anyone watching the Sasquatch convention baseball playoffs this past month noticed that most of the Boston Red Sox players looked like they hadn’t shaved since Spring Training. The Sox rode their unkempt culture all the way to a World Series title.

That’s got some leaders wondering … can we use that same beard power in our organizations?

Red Sox fan and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey guffawed on TV yesterday that, “I’m recommending to the (Obama) administration to have everyone working on the health care website to grow beards until we get that right.”

While some employers make take a liking to such beard bonding in the workplace, others demand a clean-shaven culture, much to their employees’ dismay (especially in Boston this week).

So can your organization set a no-beard policy for its male employees?

Basically, private employers do have the right to set their own dress and grooming codes. That can include setting limits on employees’ facial hair, unless the employees cite:

Religious reasons: EEOC regulations say that, unless it would be an “undue hardship,” employers must reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices. The EEOC says that can include “wearing certain hairstyles or facial hair (such as Rastafarian dreadlocks or Sikh uncut hair and beard).”

A New Jersey Lexus dealership faced a lawsuit a couple years ago when it told a sales candidate he was “just what they wanted,” but could he please go without the beard and turban? He said no and the dealership said “no” to the job.

Medical reasons: You also must allow beards if they have a medical reason for not shaving. For example, some black men are more likely to suffer from a condition in which shaving causes skin irritation and bumps.

Even in these cases, you still may be able to set a legal no-beard policy if you can show that it’s necessary to maintain workplace safety (such as needing to wear a respirator that fits snuggly around the employee’s mouth and nose).

Recent case: When a new CEO took over a California security company, he set a no-beard policy for his security guards (those with religious or medical reasons were exempted). But Joseph, who wore a goatee for years, refused to shave. He was fired and sued, claiming he had a constitutional right to express himself through facial hair.

Result? Joseph had a bad hair day in court as the judge threw out his complaint. The court said different rules apply in the public sector, where, under some circumstances, a man’s facial hair could be seen as an expression of rebelliousness that could amount to protected political expression. No such right exists for private-sector workers. (Simpson v. Charles Drew University, 2013)

Final notes: Be consistent in your policy. Also, even if you must allow certain employees to wear beards, your grooming policy can still require that all facial hair be neatly trimmed—something that was obviously not required of Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes or the rest of the scraggly band of Red Sox brothers.

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Category: HR Soapbox