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A Hairy Backtrack
School Administrator, August
An experienced preschool teacher applies for a job teaching in the primary grades at a local public school. The principal is impressed by his resume, recommendations and interview responses, but tells the candidate his beard might upset parents in the community. The principal asks him if he’d shave it. The teacher declines, prompting the principal to withdraw the job offer. Was the principal’s action ethical?
While I have never heard of shaving a beard as a condition of employment, much less facial hair bothering students, one can understand how the looks of ZZ Top’s, James Harden’s and Alaskan Bush Billy’s Beard could upset some parents. Regardless of whether the candidate’s beard was smartly trimmed or wildly untamed, the principal not only had the right to make the request, but also acted ethically in doing so.
As the school’s leader, the principal is responsible for ensuring the climate and culture of a school are conducive to a high quality of teaching and learning. If, in his or her judgement, a candidate is not a good fit, the principal should not extend a job offer and can withdraw one, assuming a legal contract has not been signed and federally protected class issues are not in play.
In this case, the principal has the ethical responsibility to withdraw the offer given what he or she knows about the parent community. Moreover, his action is taken in the best interests of the students in that were this teacher hired, he would likely face objections from some parents that would be distracting and take time away from his teaching. This conflict would likely have an adverse impact on primary grade children who can always sense when dissension exists between teacher and parent. Putting students first, the principal showed both sound ethics and decisive leadership.
It appears the principal has made a poor and potentially litigious decision based on a perception that the preschool teacher’s beard would upset parents. There is no defensible explanation given for why the beard might be upsetting. The beard does not constitute a safety issue or appear to be in conflict with a school or district policy, and should play no part in his hiring. This decision strikes me as discriminatory and inappropriate.
Employees are hired based on competency and skill set, not on how their appearance will be judged by others. There may be some instances in which a physical attribute is a part of a job description because the job responsibility requires it (e.g., carrying heavy objects). I don’t believe this teacher’s beard falls in that category.
The principal’s action was not ethical for three reasons. First, as a public school administrator, the principal is a representative of the state. By withdrawing the teacher’s job offer, the principal has used the power of the government to deny employment to a qualified individual on prima facie (pun intended) irrelevant grounds. Of all employers, the state must be held to the highest standards of inclusion and non-discrimination given its obligation to represent and serve the public.
Second, even if this were a private school, employers may not use their customers’ (in this case, parents’) prejudices as grounds to deny employment to an otherwise qualified candidate. Civil rights-era case law makes this clear. Even if a store can show it is likely to lose customers because they do not want to be served by a black sales clerk or a hospital can show it will lose patients who mistrust female doctors, these employers may not discriminate in hiring on the basis of race or gender. The same principle holds here.
Finally, schools are, by definition, places of education. Their purpose is to help people develop into better and more informed individuals, learners and citizens. At the very least, by hiring this teacher, the school could teach its students to value and respect bearded men and thus avoid their parents’ misbegotten fears. Furthermore, by modeling an inclusive and diverse community, the school might teach parents to overcome their prejudices and thus promote learning among adults as well as children.
Although beards are not covered in the list of legal protections against discrimination, unless they are worn for religious or health-related reasons, it is unethical and perhaps illegal in some states and cities to discriminate against this teacher based on his beard. Employment decisions should be based on the ability to perform the tasks of the position, not solely on physical appearance. The assumption that parents might be upset may be inaccurate. In fact, some parents also may have beards.
Employers may establish reasonable dress codes related to a position that could include cleanliness and neatness, such as a beard that is appropriately groomed. However, beyond personal hygiene, physical appearance has no relationship to teaching. Would the principal hold all male staff members — including custodians, bus drivers and instructional assistants — to the same beard-free standard? Would the principal allow parents with beards to volunteer in classrooms?
Discriminating against this individual because of his beard is a slippery slope that could be used to justify discrimination against people with tattoos, piercings, unusual hair styles, different body types, etc., none of which are related to performance on the job. Such a decision by the principal also could become a proxy for other, more traditional forms of discrimination, such as race, religion or sexual orientation. This inappropriate bias could create a hostile environment for those who differ with the principal’s biases.
The larger ethical issue is our responsibility as educators to introduce students to the concepts of diversity and inclusivity. Faculty diversity in appearance, as well as in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical disability, supports students in learning how these concepts are demonstrated in everyday life. Creating uniformity through the trivial rejection of a person with a beard represents the antithesis of a basic tenet of our democratic society.
draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:
The Ethical Educator panel consists of
, superintendent, Andover, Mass.;
, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of
Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries
, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and
Glenn "Max" McGee
, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.