Can employers ban beards in the workplace?

The Guardian recently reported that a high profile construction firm had banned its workers from having beards. The firm explained its decision on the grounds that its workers are required to wear tight-fitting face masks when working in dusty environments and that these masks will not properly fit workers who have beards, which creates a health and safety risk. The firm’s decision has drawn criticism from trade union bosses who have described it as a cynical cost saving exercise.

A question many employers will be asking when they read this is whether it is lawful to put in place such a strict rule? We therefore thought we’d set out some guidance below to help any other employers facing a similar situation.

The first point to make is that employers are generally free to set whichever workplace rules they wish, as long as they treat everybody the same. In this particular case, the employer would say that the no beard rule applies to all workers equally.

Despite this general freedom, however, employers need to ensure that any rules which appear to treat everyone equally do not inadvertently place some groups of workers at a particular disadvantage. An example of this in relation to beards in the workplace might be workers who are required to have beards for religious or cultural reasons. Even though the rule applies equally to all workers, it would put these workers at a particular disadvantage due to their religion. This would amount to indirect discrimination.

The good news for employers is that indirect discrimination can be justified if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In this situation, ensuring the health and safety of employees would clearly be a legitimate aim, so the question would be whether banning beards is a proportionate means of achieving this aim. This would come down to whether there were any less intrusive options available, such as changing work practices if possible or providing different types of equipment if any is available.

In contrast, an employer who bans beards simply out of personal preference, without any legitimate business objectives for the ban, will be unable to avoid liability for indirect discrimination should the ban disproportionately affect groups of workers with particular protected characteristics.

In this case then, the employer will be relying on an objective justification of the no beard rule on health and safety grounds. The rule is therefore likely to be lawful, assuming there is not a less intrusive alternative available.

On a practical level, in a situation such as this, an employer may therefore wish to consider the impact such a rule is likely to have on workplace morale when introducing it, especially since some employees may see it as unnecessarily onerous or strict. Obviously, workplace rules which protect health and safety will not fall into the unnecessary category, in which case the important thing will be to introduce any new rules in the right way to ensure they are received positively by the workforce.

As with any workplace issue, the key thing is proper communication. It is easy to imagine how an announcement of a new workplace rule made out of the blue is likely to be resented by employees. It is also easy to see that taking the time to explain the reasons for the introduction of a particular rule, why it is so important and whether there are any exceptions available is much more likely to minimise any tension between employee and employer.

If your business is affected by issues like those outlined above, please get in touch with our expert employment lawyers today on 0161 926 9969 or employment@mlplaw.co.uk.