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Making the Cut: Beards vs. the ADA

How to proceed with accommodations related to beards

From the desk of Brittany Lambert, M.S., CRC, Senior Consultant - Sensory Team

Sam works as an accountant in an office setting. While this is not a customer-facing position, the employer’s dress code policy states that all employees in the office must be clean-shaven. Sam informs his manager that he cannot shave due to irritant contact dermatitis.

Morgan is a firefighter with pseudofolliculitis barbae. All personnel must be able to wear tight sealing respirator masks. Because facial hair can impact the effectiveness of the mask’s seal, Morgan is told he must remove his beard. He goes to HR to request an accommodation.

Employers may be unsure of how to proceed upon receiving a request for accommodation regarding beards. Is skin irritation considered a disability under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Does an employer have an obligation to modify its dress code policies as an accommodation? What if other federal regulations, such as OSHA standards, require employees to be clean-shaven? Let’s explore these ideas a bit further.

According to the ADA, an individual with a disability is someone who 1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; 2) has a record of such an impairment; or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment. For this reason, some employees with shaving-related skin irritation may be covered by the ADA, while others will not. The employer would need to determine, based on relevant medical information, whether an individual meets this definition.

For ADA purposes, dress codes are generally considered conduct rules that an employer may enforce as long as they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. This means that the employer must consider excusing a particular individual from the rule if needed because of a disability, unless the employer can substantiate that there is a legitimate, job-related reason for which the rule exists. How might this concept apply to Sam and Morgan’s situations?

In Sam’s job, he does not see customers, nor is he required to meet with business partners or other important clientele. He works in a private office, and typically has minimal interaction with coworkers. For these reasons, it may be hard for Sam’s employer to argue that a particular dress code is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The employer may need to consider allowing a modification to the rule as an accommodation, absent undue hardship.

Morgan is required to wear a respirator for safety-related purposes in his position. If the equipment does not properly seal, it may disrupt his ability to safely perform his job duties. His employer may be justified in adhering to the conduct rule despite Morgan’s request if his facial hair prevents the mask from sealing properly. The employer may want to explore whether there are alternative masks that do not require a tight fit that would meet the safety requirements.

Employers may also consider the impact of other federal laws when determining whether an accommodation is feasible. The ADA does not prohibit employers from complying with other federal laws, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act which requires employees working in certain jobs, industries, or positions to wear particular items of clothing or protective gear. For example, OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard requires that firefighters entering an atmosphere deemed immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) must wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Furthermore, Section 29 CFR 1910.134(g)(1)(i) of the respirator standard requires that employers prohibit the use of tight fitting respirators on employees who have facial hair or any condition that interferes with the face-to-facepiece seal or valve function. Employers who are addressing accommodation concerns that seem to be in conflict with other required regulations are advised to seek legal counsel.

Employers should be aware of the rationale behind conduct rules such as dress code policies so that they are prepared to make appropriate decisions in the event of an accommodation request. As with most situations involving the ADA, each situation is unique and must be handled according to case-specific facts. If assistance is needed in determining how to address a particular situation, feel free to contact the Job Accommodation Network for an individualized consultation.

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businessman with a beard posing