Fear the beard - Page 2

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

Christopher Hanson was fired for having a beard even though he can't shave for medical reasons.

In the case of the Bay Area, that hotel is the Four Seasons. Before being hired as a full-time AV tech based in Berkeley, Hanson took on part-time gigs for Swank to set up for hotel events as far north as Sausalito and as far south as San Jose. He says that when he was first hired, nobody informed him of the no-beard policy — and he had sported the goatee at the time he was offered the job.

The first time he learned there was a problem was when he was called on to do a job at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. He completed the first job without incident, yet when he was asked to go back a second time, Reinaas told him he would have to shave. He said it was impossible to do that, so the job went to someone else.

When the Guardian phoned the San Francisco Four Seasons to find out just what its employee appearance policy was — and to ask whether exceptions are granted for individuals who cannot shave due to medical or religious reasons — assistant director of human resources Jason Brown said he could not comment.

Months later, after Hanson had been hired as a full-time staff member based at the Claremont, Hanson says he was informed that Swank was ramping up enforcement of its no facial hair policy. He was told he'd have to comply even though he was willing to opt out of work at the Four Seasons. He asked his dermatologist to send the letter urging the company to grant an exception, and shortly after, he was fired.

The lawsuit charges that it was illegal for Swank to fire Hanson because the Fair Employment and Housing Act forbids employers from discharging an employee for designated reasons, including disability. Since Hanson's psoriasis is a disability, the argument goes, his termination constitutes a form of illegal discrimination.

However, not all medical conditions are considered disabilities in the court of law. Under state law, a disability is considered a serious medical condition that limits a major life activity. If Hanson is successful in proving that psoriasis constitutes a disability, Swank could be ordered to make a reasonable accommodation — such as retaining him as an AV tech while allowing him to opt out of work at the Four Seasons. Hanson's lawyer Tim Phillips describes this case as being "on the cutting edge of discrimination law."

There have been similar face-offs over appearance policies in the past, but none that fit Hanson's circumstance exactly — and, ironically, it seems that he might have an easier time arguing his case in court if he is unable to shave for religious reasons, or if he belongs to a racial minority that is disproportionately affected by a particular medical condition.

Not all cases brought against employers with similar policies in the past have been successful. In 1984, a Sikh machinist working for Chevron refused to shave his beard, in violation of a company policy, and wound up getting demoted to a lower-paid job as a janitor. Chevron's no-beard rule was created to ensure that employees had a gas-tight seal on respirators worn to protect against exposure to toxic gases, but the machinist could not shave for religious reasons. The Sikh man sued Chevron and lost.

In 1999, Sunni Muslim police officers in Newark sued when they were required to shave their beards to comply with an officer appearance policy, and the court ordered the police department to create an exception for those who couldn't shave for religious reasons.