Fear the beard

Can an employer get away with firing someone for having facial hair?

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Christopher Hanson was fired for having a beard even though he can't shave for medical reasons.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Christopher Hanson, a 38-year-old single father who lives in Albany, doesn't have one of those scraggly, runaway beards that one might associate with jam bands or train hopping. He keeps his goatee neat and trimmed, sometimes using scissors to clip back the mustache. Yet Hanson says he got fired last month because his facial hair was deemed a violation of his company's employee appearance policy. Now, he's fighting back.

Hanson worked as an audio-video technician for Swank Audio Visuals, a company that does conferences and events at major hotels throughout the Bay Area, including the Westin St. Francis, the Claremont, and the Four Seasons. On the day he was fired, he was on his hands and knees taping down a power cord for an event that was about to start at the Claremont when his supervisor asked to have a word with him. Having spoken with his boss about the beard situation before, he got a funny feeling.

"I just knew what he was going to say," Hanson recalled. "I thought: are these guys really going to push this, this far?"

For Hanson, having a beard is not a matter of personal expression; nor is it related to religious reasons. He has psoriasis, which prevents him from being able to shave. About a week before he was let go, his dermatologist sent a note to Swank's human resources department explaining that although he was undergoing treatment, she had counseled him never to shave his beard. It could exacerbate the disease, she explained. Shaving the affected area could cause pain, redness, and irritation on a daily basis, as well as unsightly rash. The doctor urged Swank to grant a medical exception for Hanson.

Hanson says he reminded his boss, Ken Reinaas, and Reinaas' boss, Todd Liedahl, about that letter when he was approached for their final conversation about the beard. "I said, 'I have a medical condition," Hanson recalled. But he says the response he got was, "I'm sorry, but that's the way it is." Hanson says he didn't yell or let himself become agitated. "I just kind of stood there and tried to keep a calm and humble mannerism," he said.

About a week later, Swank's human resources department issued a letter at Hanson's request explaining why he'd been fired. It stated: "The reason for [sic] end of your employment is due to the fact that we are unable to accommodate your medical request not to shave because this is a standard of our company appearance policy." Swank did not return multiple Guardian requests for comment.

The job, which had a strict dress code requiring AV techs to wear ties and shirts with collars, paid around $15 an hour. With a teenage daughter to support, Hanson needed every cent to make ends meet. He also had taken on substantial debt to finance an education at Ex'pression College for Digital Arts — a for-profit school in Emeryville with a tuition rate of $11,200 per semester for full-time students — and he needed to be able to pay back the student loans.

Hanson began to suspect that his former employer might have broken the law, so he sought legal representation. According to a complaint filed May 12 on Hanson's behalf by attorney Albert G. Stoll Jr., the Claremont Hotel — which houses the Swank office where Hanson was based — has no employee restrictions against facial hair. "The manager of hotel banquets had a goatee; one of the hotel banquet employees had a goatee; another hotel banquet employee had a mustache; and at least two other employees had facial hair," the lawsuit points out.

However, Swank employees were barred from having facial hair because company policy was pegged to the most conservative hotel employee appearance policy in the region, Hanson said.