With the continued popularity of beards, and with more and more people under 30 embracing the bearded lifestyle, the topic of beards in the workplace is a hot one. Beards have gone in and out of fashion many times since the Industrial Age. Whether or not beards are permitted in the workplace have tended to follow those trends. Facial hair fell out of favor in the workplace around the early 1980s. The image of the clean-shaven face being synonymous with professionalism has persisted strongly since then.
The association of the clean-shaven face with a certain level of elitism and professionalism likely stems, at least in part, from the US military, particularly since World War I. Prior to this, in certain eras such as the Civil War, beards on soldiers were common place. However, when poisoning by gas became a common military tactic, beards were banned. Gas masks, which saved many soldiers’ lives during the World Wars, require a tight seal against the skin, and beards just wouldn’t allow this. To this day, with very few exceptions, most military men are required to maintain clean-shaven faces. This image of the clean-shaven, all-American soldier transferred into other aspects of life, including the workplace. This is why many businesses today have chosen to maintain a “no beards” policy among its employees.
Today’s younger generation is challenging the notion of clean-shaven faces equaling professionalism. It’s not just beards that are pushing the envelope in the workplace, either. Tattoos, body piercings and other style trends are also becoming increasingly more common and causing some business owners and executives to relax their dress codes a little bit in light of greater public acceptance of such trends. Those who cling to the idea that beards should not be a part of the professional workplace tend to be those who remember and value the workplaces of the 1980s and 1990s.
People who want to keep facial hair out of the workplace sometimes cite misinformation and sketchy reasoning as grounds for doing so. We’re tackling some of those ideas here as a means of clarifying the beard debate:
Generally speaking, there are few legalities when it comes to whether or not a company can prohibit male employees from sporting facial hair. Companies have always been allowed to dictate their own policies about all kinds of things, including dress code, which also covers grooming. It has as much right to demand a clean-shaven face as it does to require a professional wardrobe. As long as a business does not make demands that are unreasonable or encroach on a person’s human rights, it is perfectly within its rights to ban beards in the workplace.
In some industries, facial hair can be legally banned. For example, depending on where you live and work, it may be illegal for certain food services employees to have facial hair for hygienic reasons. Let’s face it: no one wants to find a hair in their tuna on rye, no matter how carefully groomed the beard that it comes from is. Some local health codes ban beards altogether for food service workers. Others allow men to keep their facial hair if they wear a beard net while working.
All beards are scientifically proven to be unhygienic. In reality, studies on beard hygiene are conflicting. It’s true that certain nasty things (bacteria, bugs and other nasties) have been found in beards. However, those same things can be found in similar quantities on other parts of the body as well as on clean-shaven faces.
Beards can enhance the overall image of a company. This depends largely on the type of business. For instance, if you own a chain of hipster coffee shops and you’re trying to appeal to the 20-35-year-old demographic, it can be advantageous for male employees to sport trendy beards.
At the end of the day, it’s really all about the kind of image that a particular business wants to uphold. Rather than trying to challenge the stereotype that bearded men don’t look professional, it’s simply easier for most companies to stick with the status quo and ban the beard. Then again, other businesses benefit from the image that the bearded employee gives off. About the only thing that both sides of the debate agree on is that, if you are going to allow facial hair in the workplace, stipulate that it must be clean and well-groomed. It will never be easy to sell yourself, whether you’re a chartered accountant or a hipster barista, or the company you work for, if you look like Grizzly Adams.