Is it legal to deny a promotion to someone with a beard?

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Reader: My company has a strict no beard policy except for a medical exemption. A younger guy in my department recently jumped through the hoops to get an exemption. When the chief executive found out, she made sarcastic comments about the policy and how he knew about it when he was hired four months ago. We all thought his tone wasn’t a bit professional, but we ignored it. We then found out that the GM cornered our manager and told him she wouldn’t consider the new guy for future promotions because of his beard. Isn’t that a form of discrimination? Am I overreacting? I also don’t like shaving, but I also like my job and I don’t see a beard as the right professional hill to die on.

Karla: I’ll admit, after years of answering questions focused on women’s makeup, tattoos, and clothing in the workplace, it’s refreshing to receive a letter about men being judged on their looks.

To recap: as a general rule, employers have the right to set and enforce even arbitrary grooming standards and dress codes without affecting health, safety or performance. Policies simply cannot discriminate against or impose an unequal burden on any gender, race or other legally protected group. Employers must also accommodate workers with disabilities, medical conditions or religious beliefs that conflict with the policy.

It might not seem like a big deal to agree to a boring work rule that doesn’t cause you personally any physical discomfort. But imagine if daily shaving was extremely painful and caused long-term damage to your skin. You don’t mention why your colleague requested a medical exemption, but a quick consultation with Dr Google indicates that a condition called pseudofolliculitis beard (PFB) – severe razor bumps often leading to infection and scarring – is one reason. running to avoid shaving.

It’s so common that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mentions it in a fact sheet on workplace grooming and dress policies. And he specifically notes in another fact sheet that in some cases, a beardless policy could be considered racially discriminatory against black men, who are particularly prone to developing PFB.

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I wonder why no one has pointed out that your colleague followed the proper protocol to qualify for an exemption, and therefore he is in full compliance with company policy. If your CEO insists on punishing him for getting this medical accommodation, he may take legal action.

So here is. Your GM is unprofessional, and possibly biased, and it’s high time someone got HR to tell her to stop before she gets in trouble with her employer.

Even when it comes to health and safety, accommodations are possible for those who cannot shave for medical or religious reasons.

For example, coronavirus-preventive N95 masks are less effective when worn over the beard, presenting a moral dilemma during the pandemic for healthcare providers following the Sikh faith, which forbids cutting or cutting oneself. shave his hair. While some made the difficult choice to shave, others were able to use alternative masking solutions and equally effective protective gear without having to violate the tenets of their faith.

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While it’s possible to circumvent a beardless policy when the stakes are life or death, I find it hard to imagine a job where hosting isn’t possible.

Then again, at least one federal judge has ruled that the US Marine Corps should be allowed to prohibit Sikh personnel from wearing beards, turbans and other denominational signifiers when joining boot camp, so that the issue is far from settled.

Either way, it’s worth asking why the policy exists in your workplace.

Are there legitimate health or safety reasons? Or is it just one of those unexamined traditions where standards of “professional” hairstyles, speech patterns, appearance and behavior simply align with the practices and preferences of the demographic group in charge? ?

Again, it costs you little or nothing to adhere to a clean shave policy if your face and faith don’t object. Those follicle splurges might not be worth sacrificing your career for. But by that logic, I wonder if this policy is the hill on which your employer’s integrity deserves to die.

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