Pogonophobia is an extreme dislike of beards. Margaret Thatcher is famously said to have had pogonophobia, and it seems that some employers share that with her! It has been reported recently that a construction firm (Mears) has banned employees from having beards. Now to be fair to Mears, the reason they cited for this is that it affects an employee’s ability to wear dust masks effectively, rather than a fear of the chin fuzz.
The ban does raise some interesting points. Employers are able to put in place rules around how employees dress and their personal appearance at work, but there is a need to be careful that this does not create issues with discrimination. A rule about dress or appearance which is seemingly innocuous and applied to all could be indirectly discriminatory if in practice it disadvantages a group with a particular protected characteristic (age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy or maternity, religion or belief).
However, there is a defence to this – a rule which is indirectly discriminatory can potentially be justified as “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. For example, health and safety reasons may qualify as a legitimate aim if that is a genuine reason for the rule being in place. In the famous case of Eweida and ors v UK (2013), the European Court of Human Rights did not uphold a nurse’s complaint for indirect discrimination stemming from her employer banning her from wearing a religious necklace at work, and this was because the health and safety reasons for that were identified as legitimate aims, and the ban was proportionate.
Mears made it clear when they communicated their rule that if employees are unable to shave for medical or religious reasons, then there would be exceptions if the employee provides evidence of that being the case. Personally I can see a gap in the market here for inventing a dust mask that can accommodate beards! But to go back to the point, this would potentially help Mears defend themselves against any claims (if any are raised) that this rule indirectly discriminates against employees with disabilities, or employees with a particular religion or belief.
Dress codes and rules around appearance at work can lead to issues, both legal and reputational – as demonstrated by the recent outcry about companies requiring women to wear high heels. Therefore, it is important to review any rules thoroughly before implementing them, and set out why such rules are considered necessary for the organisation.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).