As an employer, can you dictate whether or not your employees have facial hair?

Every employer should have a comprehensive, legally-compliant dress code policy in place, and communicate it clearly so employees fully understand what their commitments are. The employment contract should include full details, and they should be reiterated in the handbook, plus management should be aware of expectations, and how to enforce them.

Some organisations say a point blank no to facial hair, and if that’s stated in their policy then fair enough, though it’s easier to justify if there are health and safety reasons rather than purely stylistic ones. But if you don’t have a policy that clearly rules out facial hair, you need to consider what you will and won’t allow. What happens if someone decides to grow a beard, for example? In the army, they give six weeks grace to get through the patchy, stubbly stage, but after that it either needs to be trimmed and well maintained, or come off.

A beard can serve many purposes – whether covering up acne scars, or making someone look older – so an individual may be resistant to shaving. Gender, race, religion and ethnicity tend to be the areas where sensitive issues arise, so it’s important to be mindful of these when defining your policy and always seek advice where necessary. You need to be careful not to discriminate against anyone.

From a legal perspective, employers can require male employees to shave as long as it doesn’t infringe on their civil rights, or cause undue hardship. There are two main exceptions that have been successful in court. The first is religious discrimination, i.e. if your religion prevents you from shaving, your employer cannot require it. Some Sikh men don’t shave or cut their hair, and a Jewish man who has lost an immediate family member, won’t shave for thirty days. The second is hardship due to medical reasons. The persistent skin irritation pseudofolliculitis barbae, for example, makes shaving extremely painful, and a court would likely rule that someone with this condition should not be made to shave.

If you have a full beard and work in a kitchen, you will be asked to wear a hair net over your beard for hygiene reasons – no one wants hair in their meal. And for similar reasons, some company policies will state that hair needs to be tied back if it’s beyond shoulder length. But of course there can’t be any kind of gender bias here – the same must apply to men or women.

And what happens if an employee refuses to comply? The first thing you need to do is check your policy has actually been breached, and not open to interpretation due to poor wording or lack of clarity. But a dress code policy gives an employer the security to try and deal with a situation informally first, safe in the knowledge it can be escalated if required.