As an aficionado of blonde highlights with a side line in curling and straightening my own coiffure from time to time I was slightly sorry to see the new US Army regulations on personal appearance.  For those not in the loop, the US Army has recently updated its grooming rules, and in doing so has banned a number of hairstyles popular amongst African-American women, who make up around one quarter of female soldiers in the US. Styles falling within the banned barnet bracket include twists, dreadlocks and large cornrows.  

The trimming back of hairstyle options has led to widespread complaint – female soldiers have hastened to point out that these styles are often easier to look after on the front line than others requiring chemical treatment or a weave, which let’s face it, aren’t always exactly convenient. Critics have slammed the new policy as anachronistic, racially discriminatory and in need of a makeover to reflect the needs of current society – it has also left many wondering what threat to health and safety, discipline or national security could be posed by a cornrow.  The mass outcry against the policy (which also covers tattoos and jewellery) has led to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel calling for a review of the regulations and their particular impact on black women.  We shall see.   

But where does this leave your average employer’s concerns about staff appearance? Requiring staff to attend work with their hair in a certain style may be entirely appropriate in some professions, but it is key for employers to ensure that any such policy is both drafted and implemented in a manner that does not constitute either indirect or direct discrimination against their own troops. The Courts have already examined the impact of a College’s ban on cornrows (G v Head Teacher of St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in 2011).  In this case the High Court held that a school’s ban on boys wearing their hair in cornrows was unlawful indirect race discrimination.   Neat cornrows were no more or less damaging to the impression created of the school than the more conventional but less tidy mops of the other pupils.  The policy could not therefore be justified on that basis.   

The nature of the role and of the employer are both integral to this question – a hairstyle permissible in a junior role in the postroom may not wash at senior executive level.  And pity poor Halfords, sued back in 1980 after dismissing its employee Mr Eales for dyeing his hair yellow.  Strict rules about colouring your hair might be necessary to protect corporate image in some businesses, said the Employment Tribunal in somewhat cutting tones, but “not a bicycle shop in Mansfield”.  

So keep an eye on any staff rules about personal appearance.  Are they necessary to the proper projection of the business or are you pursuing your own personal views as to how your employees should look?  Are those views the majority or the industry norm – what do your competitors look like (in the literal sense of the term)?  Are your aspirations for an outward professional appearance realistic or are you, literally or metaphorically, a bicycle shop in Mansfield?