Splitting hairs: When is a no-beard policy illegal?

Two recent court cases help draw the boundaries on how far you can go with a razor.

Federal Express recently settled a lawsuit involving its no-beard policy and a Muslim employee. The policy already included an exception for employees who can't shave for medical reasons. But now the company will also allow employees with "sincerely held religious beliefs" regarding a beard or hairstyle to request an exception. (EEOC v. Federal Express Corp., No. CV-100-50, S.D. Ga., 2001)

In a separate case, a paramedic in Oregon was told to shave his beard so a particular type of respirator would fit over his face. He filed suit, saying the no-beard policy discriminated against men, since only men can grow beards. But the court tossed out the case, saying his beard was a matter of choice, not one of religious belief or health. (Barrett v. American Medical Response, CV-00-1539-ST, D.Ore., 2001)

Advice: You can make rules about workers' personal choices, such as hair length or facial hair, but you can't insist on things related to characteristics that can't be changed so simply, such as a person's religion.