Facial Hair in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Employers can insist staff are well-groomed, but there are some occasions when requesting a beard to be shaved off could be classed as discriminatory.

Article 8 Minutes
Facial Hair in the Workplace

Dress codes in the workplace are nothing new, but some company dress codes are more comprehensive than others and can even go into detail about more than just what attire or appearance guidelines employees must follow. Among the areas that may or may not be covered in dress code requirements is facial hair policies, but setting rules around beards can be more complicated than expected for HR departments and employers to navigate.

The evolving perception of facial hair

Facial hair has traditionally signaled masculinity. As 21st-century businesses are, of course, more focused on a diverse and inclusive corporate culture among employees, facial hair will never be an essential work accessory dictated by the dress policy, but rather a style choice and positive vehicle for charitable fundraising initiatives like Movember and Decembeard that allows for individual creative expression.

Growing social acceptance of beards

Facial hair acceptance and popularity as a professional appearance standard has grown significantly in recent years' changing social norms. More men today view beards not just as a personal style choice subject to relaxed corporate culture attitudes, but as an appropriate look according to flexible grooming standards. From stubble and goatees to fuller corporate beards, facial hair representation in workplaces has expanded alongside evolving private employer policies on dress and attire guidelines.

Balancing act for employers

Public health rules and department regulations provide useful guidance for employers in setting professional appearance standards. However, employers still grapple with balancing widespread social acceptance of beards against important considerations like safety, hygiene, well-being and ensuring non-discrimination is practiced. Setting clear yet adaptable appearance requirement policies is key to thoughtfully navigating these complex issues in a legally compliant manner that considers all viewpoints to avoid indirect discrimination concerns which could arise from inflexible rules.

Religious and medical exemptions

Certain employees grow beards for important cultural or medical reasons protected under religious discrimination laws. These reasons must be respected so as not to require removing facial hair due to less understanding dress code policies. On the other hand, facial hair safety concerns are a legitimate factor for certain high-risk industries like construction to consider carefully in the context of their specific business necessity requirements and any alternatives available as determined on a case-by-case basis.

Practical solutions for HR and employers

Here are some suggestions to help HR departments and employers navigate the complexities of facial hair in the workplace:

  • Craft a clear and inclusive dress code policy: Focus on overall appearance and hygiene rather than specifically mentioning facial hair. Use terms like "well-groomed" and "maintained" to establish expectations
  • Allow for exceptions: Include a clause that allows for exceptions based on religious beliefs or medical conditions, with proper documentation from a doctor
  • Open communication: Encourage open communication with employees who may have concerns about the policy or require an exception
  • Focus on safety first: In situations where facial hair poses a genuine safety risk (e.g., respirator use), explore alternative solutions like beard guards or specific beard styles that ensure a proper seal
  • Regular review: Periodically review your dress code policy to ensure it remains relevant and reflects current social norms

By implementing flexible yet consistent standards, and maintaining respectful communication, workplaces can maximize individual expression while also ensuring professionalism and safety for all employees. With open-minded consideration of multiple viewpoints, even sensitive issues around facial hair style and grooming need not become a point of conflict or discrimination.

Facial hair and the law

Are beards professional or unprofessional?

Traditional beliefs suggest that beards aren’t part of a professional look, and in the past many people were recommended to shave before a job interview. That perception has changed significantly, and a recent survey of 500 men found 90% were allowed to have facial hair at work, as long as it was kept neat and clean.

Another survey, conducted by the American Mustache Institute (AMI), found that 92% of respondents believed mustaches were appropriate for the workplace. Despite that, only 30% of the 1,109 Americans that were consulted for the study reported to a superior with facial hair, suggesting there’s a ‘mustache ceiling’ at play.

Can you force an employee to shave their beard?

As an employer, you’re within your rights to request staff to be groomed and well turned out. The problem comes with the interpretation of this, and sometimes asking an employee to shave their beard can be seen as discrimination. If a beard has been grown for religious or medical reasons, then asking for it to be removed could open you up to a legal challenge.

If there’s a no facial hair policy within your company and it’s written into an employee’s contract, then you can make them shave their beard. There’s an even greater case for enforcing this if facial hair poses a health and safety risk.

What's the law against facial hair in the workplace?

There are no laws pertaining to specifically facial hair, so policies are mainly at the discretion of your company. The legislation to take into consideration, however, is based on equality and discrimination, so interpreting this properly will ensure you don’t find yourself in a legal wrangle.

Can a contract insist that staff are clean shaven when at work because of health and safety issues?

Many companies make it a stipulation that employees are clean shaven due to health and safety reasons. Among the industries where this is a serious consideration are the military, mining, chemical facilities and construction companies. Generally, the rationale behind the move is so that dust masks and respiratory equipment will fit the wearer properly. The Health and Safety Executive warns that stubble and beards prevent a good seal between the mask and the face.

What about staff whose religious beliefs require them not to shave?

Multicultural societies must be sensitive to the nuances of different cultures, and companies can’t be seen to be discriminating against an individual based on their religion. There have been many cases brought against organizations to do with dress codes in light of spiritual beliefs, with the law reinforcing the right not to be discriminated against on religious terms.

One such case was that of a Sikh who adheres to kesh, which is the practice of not cutting the hair on the body as a way of honoring the perfection of God’s creation. He was awarded compensation by an employment tribunal after a hospitality agency refused to take him on unless he shaved his beard. It was found that this was discriminatory against Sikhs, as the standard was being enforced for the sake of appearance.

Other religions that promote full beards in men include Islam, traditional Christianity and orthodox Judaism. A recent case relating to the US armed forces also granted a soldier serving in Afghanistan to grow a beard in accordance with his Norse pagan faith. He follows in the footsteps of Sikh soldiers, who have been exempt from the US military’s strict beard policy since 2017. In 2018, Staff Sgt Abdul Rahman Gaitan became the first Muslim US airman to be granted a beard waiver.

What about those who suffer from skin disorders?

Similarly, there are some medical conditions that make shaving difficult, so you could be open to a discrimination case if you insist the individual removes their beard under these circumstances. Pseudofolliculitis barbae is a skin condition that’s common among black men and can lead to easily infected razor bumps after shaving.

A number of cases have been fought on medical grounds against employers based on the condition, including by a police officer at the University of Pennsylvania. If a member of staff can produce medical evidence, such as a letter from their doctor, this sets the criteria for them to be exempt from strict beard policies.

What can HR do to address any potential issues at an informal level?

It’s a good idea to consult employees before implementing a dress code, so that any potential issues can be dealt with before it’s all put down in writing. Codes should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that they’re still in line with current standards and aren’t discriminatory. HR should be able to explain the justifications for a dress code at any given time to prove there are valid reasons behind it.

Diverse grooming policies across industries

Various industries have different rules and regulations when it comes to grooming and facial hair, making it important to be aware of how your chosen career aligns with these guidelines.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend in many industries to reassess their stance on facial hair and embrace diversity and personal expression. This gradual change towards acceptance is becoming apparent as companies recognize that having facial hair does not detract from one's professionalism or abilities.

Industries with strict policies: Industries celebrating facial hair:
Food Service and Hospitality Creative Arts
Healthcare Technology and Start-ups
Manufacturing and Construction Outdoor and Adventure
Corporate Finance Academia
Customer-Facing Roles Entertainment and Media

Source: Bald and the Bearded 

Finding common ground

In closing, workplace policies around facial hair remains an evolving area as social norms continue to change. While personal styles have more latitude today, employers still weigh important considerations of professionalism, image, safety and inclusion. With open communication and an understanding of diverse perspectives, companies and employees can establish practical yet flexible standards respecting both individual needs and professional responsibilities.

As awareness grows regarding medical conditions and religious beliefs regarding facial hair, policies will likely adapt further to maximize both employee expression and all-around well-being. Overall, a cooperative spirit of mutual understanding between companies and staff will serve best to navigate this nuanced facet of the modern workplace in a fair and progressive manner.

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24/05/2023 David Yates
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