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Saving Face

Blade Runner: Daily shaving can cause a medical condition, commonly known as razor bumps, in African-Americans and some other ethnic groups.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

A daily shave presents a thorny problem for some ethnic groups, and a new lawsuit threatens to make employers cut their no-beard policies.

By Michael Learmonth

THE BLUE SUIT AND BADGE have always been standard equipment, but should an employer be allowed to make a clean shave part of the uniform?

A San Jose private-security firm was slapped with a federal lawsuit last month that alleged racial discrimination for a company policy requiring employees to go under the blade.

Kirby Thompson, an African American man who wears a scissor-cut shadow-beard, reported for his first day of work in May 1994 as a rent-a-cop at Healthcare Security Services, a company that provides security officers to hospitals and other medical facilities. Thompson alleges that company officials informed him of their unequivocal "no-beard" policy and told him to get a shave or take a hike. Two years later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Healthcare Security under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to seek compensation for Thompson and to prove "no-beard" policies violate the civil rights of African American men.

Thompson has a medical condition that affects about 10 percent of African American men called pseudofolliculitis barbae, which can turn a quick morning shave into a painful facial infection. Commonly known as "razor bumps," the condition, when severe, can lead to repeated infections, ingrown hairs, scarring and disfigurement.

Los Gatos dermatologist Patrick Bitter Jr. said the condition can be "90 to 95 percent eliminated" by simply growing a beard. Other treatment options, according to Bitter, include topical antibiotics, cortisone, Retin-A, even laser surgery.

"If your face is sore all the time, you can imagine that it's a major problem," Bitter said.

Susceptibility to pseudofolliculitis barbae has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with the coarseness and curliness of hair. Shaving usually cuts hair beneath skin level at a slight angle, leaving, in some cases, a sharp point at the end. Curly facial hair can grow into the side of the hair follicle rather than straight up, causing the follicle to become infected. Dr. Bitter sees men who have multiple layers of scarring as the process continues over years of shaving. One low-tech way to combat the process is to carefully lift up individual ingrown hairs with a straight pin, but for most sufferers, a beard is the most logical solution.

Willie Abrams, assistant general counsel of the NAACP, said he had not heard of Thompson's case, but said he is all too familiar with the pain of pseudofolliculitis barbae. "I suffer from it from time to time," said Abrams from his office in Baltimore. "It can be terrible. I prefer to be clean-shaven, but every once in a while it flares up, and I let it grow out."

Face Factors

NO-BEARD POLICIES are common for a variety of jobs in public safety. San Jose's finest are instructed by section c1305.30 of the police officer's manual that "goatees and beards are not authorized." Sideburns are to be kept no longer than the ear and at a "reasonable" width. Further, the manual states, " ... hair may be permitted to grow naturally but must be groomed close to the skin so as to not present a ragged, bushy, unkempt or extremely eccentric appearance." Officer Louis Quezada said the department does waive the beard rules in the case of a medical condition such as pseudofolliculitis barbae. Right now, he said, one officer in the department has such an exemption.

Perhaps explaining the preponderance of mustaches in the ranks, the San Jose Fire Department bans beards and makes no exceptions. The breathing apparatus that firefighters use have masks that must create an airtight seal against the face. Any facial hair could endanger the life of the firefighter. "Just a half-breath of some of the burning plastics we deal with can be fatal," said Mark Skeen, a firefighter and spokesman for the union Local 230.

Jonathan Peck, a trial attorney for the EEOC, said employers that have appearance policies must make them flexible for people with medical conditions unless they meet the test of "compelling business necessity." In the case of the police department, the policy is flexible. For firefighters, a beard can be life-threatening and is, therefore, a "necessity." Healthcare Security Services, said Peck, can make no such argument.

Splitting Hairs

DINA ZIOLKOWSKI at Healthcare Security refused to disclose details of the company's no-beard policy. Company attorney Ian Fellerman argued the policy is justified because the job requires a "professional appearance," and that policies like it are "not uncommon" in the security industry.

Greg Self, of International Security Services in Mountain View, hadn't heard of a strictly "no-beard" policy in the security industry, but said it is fairly common for security companies to require neatly trimmed facial hair for their security guards. "We have officers that have beards," he said. "They are neatly trimmed, however."

Service industry companies sometimes make the argument that customers prefer a certain appearance, making grooming rules necessary. But Peck said the courts have held in the past that appearance preferences do not justify dismissal for an employee who cannot comply because of a medical condition.

For its part, Fellerman said, Healthcare Security had been willing to bend the rules to accommodate Thompson by permitting a very short beard. He said Thompson never gave the company a chance to work it out. "He worked one day, agreed to a shadow beard, then didn't show up for the second day of training." Fellerman said the EEOC's claims of discrimination are "baseless" and promises to "aggressively defend the action."

Thompson claims there was no effort at accommodation. He had been assigned to guard duty at a local hospital before he was dismissed on his first day. According to Peck, Thompson's suit could delve into issues of lost self-esteem and emotional hardship he experienced when he was forced into the unemployment line. That could send the costs of litigating the case into the stratosphere. But Thompson has since found a higher-paying job and is only seeking a relatively small amount of lost pay. If the courts find that Heathcare Security's actions were "willful," they could be liable for double the damages.

Thompson's personal losses aside, the EEOC hopes to put all employers with "no-beard" policies on trial. "Arbitrary measures that violate the civil rights of workers will not be tolerated," argues William R. Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC. If the court finds in favor of Kirby Thompson, it would fire a shot across the bow of all companies with beard policies, which could go the way of height and weight requirements that were once popular in corporate America but were found to discriminate against women. Then, Dr. Bitter would have new prescription for treating razor bumps--a shadow beard and a doctor's note.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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