Legal, People & Human Resources

British construction firm Mears bans beards at work: Can Australian SMEs introduce policies about their workers’ appearance?

Emma Koehn /

British construction company Mears is unapologetic about a new policy that forces staff to be clean shaven at work due to health and safety concerns, despite union backlash.

The firm issued the directive to workers operating in dusty environments, reports news.com.au, saying staff must “come to work clean shaven to be able to wear dust masks effectively”.

There are some exceptions, including if a staff member cannot shave for medical or religious reasons, but evidence of those factors must be provided.

While the decision has sparked a stoush with the workers’ union, Unite, the company said in a statement at the end of last week it was “disappointed” there had been objections to a workplace health decision. It insists any other alternatives to the dust mask, which cannot be properly worn over a big beard, were not acceptable.

“The simple fact is that no dust mask can work effectively unless it forms a seal against the skin. That is not possible with a beard or even heavy stubble,” the company’s group heath and safety director Mark Elkington said in the statement.

“The alternative to a dust mask is a full hood over the head, which brings its own risks. For example many of our operatives do not like wearing a full hood and it can affect hearing and line of sight.”

Closer to home, Australian lawyers say while workplace policies around dress codes can be controversial, employers have significant power to address how their workers look on the job.

However, there are some key criteria that should be fulfilled before a policy about workers’ appearance is rolled out.

Explain the safety concerns

Director at Workplace Law Shane Koelmeyer says SME owners are within their rights to issue directives about appearance or clothing if it relates to health and safety, but the key to avoiding problems later is clearly explaining the reasoning behind the policy.

“It’s about how you deliver it — you can’t just walk in there with a stick anymore and say, ‘This is how it is now’,” he says. 

While employees of previous generations may have been more willing to take directions from the top without a reason, Koelmeyer believes the average worker in today’s environment needs a clear explanation before they will accept a call to change how they look or what they wear at work.

“Say, ‘this is your job, these are the risks, and these are the products that are the best to protect us from our risks’,” he says. 

If the dress code policy relates directly to workplace health and safety and is not being obeyed by staff, Koelmeyer says employers have the power to take steps to “lawfully direct” workers towards the correct behaviour through options like re-training staff in occupational health and safety policies or delivering a series of graduated warnings.

By making it clear that any change in dress code policy is related directly to the requirements of the job, employers put themselves in a stronger position if any dispute does come up later, says Koelmeyer.

If it does escalate it to a union dispute, you need to be able to explain the change to not just to employees, you may need to explain it to a tribunal, for example. Being able to [explain it] shows that you’re genuine,” he says. 

Read more: BHP worker loses unfair dismissal claim after being sacked for refusing to shave his beard

Consultation is key

Rachel Drew, partner at law firm Holding Redlich, says employers do have the power to make directions about the appearance of their staff, either because of health and safety or the reputation the business is trying to create for itself.

However, SME owners need to be vigilant that any policies are communicated the right way, and smaller businesses should always consider consultation before approaching staff with a new policy.

There’s lots of reasons to think very carefully before applying a blanket rule, particularly around appearance,” Drew says. 

“Consultation doesn’t have to be complex, but it does give the employees an opportunity to have their say.” 

Employers need to be very careful that blanket rules don’t breach discrimination laws, because the result could be complaints raised on the basis of religious or racial discrimination.

“There’s lots of elements of our appearance that could be attributed in an individual’s discrimination complaint,” she says.  

This means SME owners should be cautious about applying any extra requirements on their workers about clothing or appearance, and always ensure new policies are directly related to one’s ability to do the job well.

“An employer who wants to impose a rule that relates to personal appearance can do so, but they need to make sure the reason relates to a genuine requirement for the employer, or to the occupation,” Drew says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

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