Why workplace bans on facial hair marginalize men of color

Kenyon Strother loves almost every aspect of his job as a hospitality professional at Chick-fil-A. He works in the kitchen of a South Carolina franchise of the fast-food chain, cooking meats and vegetables, and says the company has “great benefits and good wages.”

There’s just one problem: The employee dress code requires him to be clean-shaven. That’s a challenge for Strother because, like many black men, frequent shaving causes him to develop razor bumps, which can lead to dark marks, scar tissue, and even infection.

In addition to painting a very narrow image of what constitutes professionalism, bans on facial hair pose medical risks for men who suffer from razor bumps and can alienate men who wear beards for religious reasons.

Restrictions on beards pose more barriers to employment for men of color, particularly black men and Indian Americans who practice Sikhism, one of the world’s largest religions. Men from both groups have sued over beard bans, but a corporate sector that has historically normalized whiteness and “othered” minorities continues to prohibit facial hair.


Sikh men follow religious mandates that require them to wear beards and turbans.

Sikh men have filed multiple lawsuits related to the discrimination they face because of facial hair.
Westend61/Getty Images

Companies ban beards, ignoring that razor bumps are a legitimate medical issue

Razor bumps, known medically as pseudofolliculitis barbae, are an inflammatory skin condition. They mostly affect people with coarse, curly hair who remove it by shaving or plucking. When tightly coiled hair is shaved closely, it may retract below the skin’s surface and break through the follicle wall. The razor bumps that result can lead to dark marks, scar tissue, and even infection.

The best treatment for the problem is to stop shaving altogether, but many men work for companies that bar facial hair. Workers in food service, the military, and public service jobs commonly run into such bans. And men who run Fortune 500 companies typically don’t have facial hair either, but that trend may be changing. Younger executives, such as Google’s Sundar Pichai and Sergey Brin, wear beards, as did Steve Jobs later in his career.

Just having facial hair can make men targets of employment discrimination. Practicing Sikhs, who wear beards for religious reasons, have filed lawsuits against companies that have denied them jobs because of their appearance. Medical groups, convenience stores, and even the US Army have been sued for discriminating against Sikhs because of their beards.

Kenyon Strother first raised concerns about his Chick-fil-A’s facial hair ban during his employee orientation four months ago. He recalled a human resources officer telling him that perhaps he’d be the one to change the company’s policy. Although Strother put a petition on Coworker.org to lift the beard ban that has garnered 1,600 signatures, spoken to his managers, and even presented them with a doctor’s note about his medical condition, he said Chick-fil-A has not budged on its policy or exempted him from the clean-shaven rule. (Chick-fil-A did not respond to a request for comment about their grooming policies.)

“My wife is a nurse, and she said, ‘You’re going to have scar tissue,’” Strother said. “I’m literally shaving over the razor bumps. I’ve tried clippers. I’ve tried one-blade straight razors. I spent money on steroid creams for my neck. I’m almost in tears when I shave because I start bleeding. I have to take Tylenol it’s so bad.”

Dr. Carlos Charles, a New York City dermatologist who specializes in treating patients of color, said that he’s seen a number of men struggle with razor bumps while working for organizations that prohibit facial hair. At his New York City practice, Derma di Colore, he’s treated city workers, like policemen and firefighters, with the condition, and he calls pseudofolliculitis barbae “a huge issue.”

“It’s really challenging for any man irrespective of work environment,” Charles said. “We try to give them some advice along the line of shaving correctly, shaving with the grain of the hair, using a sharp blade. We’ll also prescribe different topical creams, some retinoids, topical antibiotics.”


NBA star LeBron James went from clean shaven to wearing facial hair.

Entrepreneur and NBA star LeBron James with a beard. Many black men wear facial hair to avoid razor bumps.
Michael N. Todaro/FilmMagic

Laser hair removal is one of the most effective ways to remove unwanted hair for those with condition, but it is also among the most expensive treatments. Charles says each treatment can cost about $200 per session, and monthly rounds are typically needed as well as maintenance visits afterward, which may be unaffordable to some people. Charles said that he’s helped plenty of patients without going this route, but for men whose skin has been resistant to other kinds of treatment, laser hair removal may prove helpful.

Entrepreneurs have also cultivated products that target the problem, such as Tristan Walker of Walker and Co. Brands, whose Bevel shave system and trimmer was developed with men of color in mind.

The shaving system uses a straight razor that helps users remove hair at skin level rather than beneath the skin’s surface, Walker explained. Fifty years ago men of all ethnic backgrounds shaved with such razors, which eliminated pulling and tugging, he said. But multi-blade commercial razors grew in popularity, leaving black men vulnerable to razor bumps.

“Large companies have not tried to solve the problem,” Walker said of razor bumps. “A lot of the mass market razors are multi-blade and pull hair from beneath the surface, and then it’s going to grow into your skin [causing razor bumps].” Because many of the shaving products on the market are alcohol-based, which dries out the skin and exacerbates irritation, he’s also developed products that aim to moisturize.

“I really wanted to solve my own problem,” Walker said.

Like Charles, Walker said he routinely hears from black men who must shave for work.

“In the military, there are men of color who have to shave every single day,” he said. “They have to fill out forms to get permission not to shave every day.”

Years ago when he worked on Wall Street as an intern for an investment bank, Walker said he was criticized for showing up on the trading floor with facial hair, an incident he found unsettling. “No one has shown me that I perform better at work with a clean-shaven face,” he said.

After pressure from a 3-year campaign, Publix lifted its beard ban

While some men have medical or religious reasons for wearing beards, others simply have trouble making the time to shave regularly. Count Brandon Wesley among them. He started working at the Publix grocery store chain in Florida about five years ago as a high school student. But once he entered college, balancing work and school stretched his time thin; after class, he had to race home to shave before starting his Publix shift.

Three years ago, he started a petition asking the company to change its grooming policy. After the petition garnered more than 21,000 signatures, Publix recently announced that September 28 would be the last day of its beard ban. (Publix did not respond to a request for comment.)

“It was pretty awesome,” said Wesley of the news. “I’m glad everyone kept [the petition] going. I am super excited. I didn’t once doubt that the [new policy] was going to pass; I just knew it wasn’t going to take time. It’s truly an issue within the company. ”

Wesley, who has worked as a bagger, cashier, and shelf stocker for Publix, said that he never received a clear reason for why the company implemented the beard ban. He suspects the company viewed clean-shaven workers as more professional-looking.

Strother said that he’s not clear on why Chick-fil-A has a beard ban either. Because he cooks, managers have raised concerns that his facial hair could get into food, but a beard net would lessen that possibility. He hopes the new Publix policy will influence Chick-fil-A to change its grooming requirements.

“This rule was put into place decades ago, when mostly white people worked for the company,” Strother said. “I have no problem following rules. I just like following rules that make sense.”