Dress codes in the workplace are nothing new, but some are more comprehensive than others and can even go into detail about more than just what you wear. Among the areas that may or may not be covered is facial hair, but setting a beard policy can be more complicated than you might expect.
Some people grow beards for religious or medical reasons, which can make it discriminatory to ask an employee to remove it. On the other hand, facial hair can be a matter of health and safety, so it’s worth looking at the finer points of the debate on both sides.
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 discrimation. 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 facial hair specifically, so policies are mainly at the discretion of your company. The legislation to take into consideration, however, is based on equality and discrimation, 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.