An Inconvenient Moustache – HR Case Study

moustacheTaken from the book: A Guide to The Employment Act and its Practical Applications, By Martin Gabriel, © HRmatters21

The phone rang and the HR Executive on the other side of the line asked me, “Martin, could you help us draft a memo?” “Sure,” I replied. “What is it about?” I asked. She said that her company wanted all their male staff to be clean shaven. No moustache. “What? No moustache? But why?” I asked. She said, “Management wants them to be clean shaven.”  I wasn’t sure how to react. I told her that the company wasn’t in the F&B or service industry and even then, having a moustache wasn’t against company policy. I knew of companies that didn’t quite like their employees sporting the five o’clock shadow, or heavy stubble. However, those companies were usually in the service industry. In those cases, management’s stance was that  you either had a moustache or beard, or you are clean shaven. No half beard or pokey stubble. It made men look half sleepy and poorly groomed, and that usually didn’t sit well with the service industry. But this company I was assisting was in construction. “Okay, why don’t we do it this way, let’s take a general approach,” I said, “let’s approach this from a general tone of overall cleanliness and proper grooming”. I told her that it was best to be persuasive rather than to make the memo a directive, as the keeping of moustache had no bearing on work performance. And so I wrote something that went along this line:

“Staff are encouraged to keep their dormitories (most of their employees were foreigners) clean and tidy. They should also maintain short hair, clean hands, and if possible be clean shaven”. There were also other details in the memo but the above proved to be our saving grace later. I drafted the memo and emailed it to her. About two weeks later, I got a call from her. She said that the MD wanted to see me right away. I could sense that something was wrong and immediately made my way to the office. At the office, the MD briefed me about what just happened. Apparently, the so called ‘campaign’ to get the men to shave their moustache had taken a nasty twist. About 30 workers ran away, some of them to their respective embassies, some to a lawyer’s office and the others alerted the press. The press called MOM and apparently they asked, “We got information that a company threatened to terminate male staff who didn’t shave their moustaches. What is the Ministry’s stance on such practices?” When the MOM was asked to make a statement pertaining to the termination of male staff who kept moustaches, they immediately got in touch with my client and asked their representative to make an appearance at MOM (this information only came to light after our interview with MOM). And that was where I was supposed to come in, my role as a HR Consultant now required me to explain what was going on, and to ensure that I put a right to what went ‘wrong’. Wow, this was indeed a tough one. So it was decided by the MD that I would have two other managers with me. We were not sure what clarifications they (MOM) were seeking at that point in time when they called us and they did not elaborate further but simply said that they wanted to see the company’s HR Manager or representatives.

As we sat in an interview room, we were greeted by three officers. I immediately recognised one of them as an ex-colleague of mine. I believed she recognised me too, however, we didn’t acknowledge each other as ex-colleagues. She took her seat in the middle and it became apparent that she was the most senior and highest ranking among the three. I sat in the middle too, directly across the table from her. She immediately got down to serious business and asked, “Did the company threaten the male workers to shave their moustaches or be terminated?” I answered, “No.” I said that officially the company did not issue any ultimatum to the workers to shave their moustaches. She then showed me a poster that displayed a ‘before and after’ message. A picture on the left showed a man with a moustache looking rather glum, and a picture on the right side of the poster showed someone clean shaven giving a broad smile. This is the same type of picture you would see on advertisements targeting ladies put up by beauty salons selling their slimming services. This picture caught me by surprise, and for a moment I was stunned. I quickly recovered and stated that, officially, the company would not terminate any worker just because he sported a moustache. The company however could not control what went on at the work site itself, where supervisors may have said and done things in an informal manner. It could also have been a case of miscommunication as most of the workers who were affected were foreigners. However, workers were free to approach higher management to clarify matters. There was no official document that said that anyone who sported a moustache should be fired. I also informed MOM that I drafted a memo that recommended workers be clean shaven but it was just part of a broader cleanliness and grooming campaign. She asked me where the memo was and I replied that it was submitted to the HR Executive about two weeks ago. We were then asked for her (the HR Executive) number and the MOM officer made the call to request a copy of that memo. We were not allowed to leave our seats while this was going on. I believed they were afraid that we would go out and invent a memo that matched the story I had just described, or brief the HR Executive on what she should say. Luckily for us, the memo I drafted was faxed over within minutes. It was proof that we were not targeting staff with moustaches specifically but that our approach was one of general cleanliness and grooming. The MOM officer asked me, “Why do you guys need to get into the personal grooming of a construction worker?” Aha! Such questions gave me the opportunity to delve into best HR practices, which was my cup of tea. I said, “Well, we usually look into their personal habits and grooming if it affects their work performance. For example, if someone has long hair, and it covers their eyes when they go up to the 25th storey, and if they take a wrong step because their hair gets in the way of complete visibility, are we to be blamed?” Doesn’t a waiter or waitress need to keep short and clean finger nails? After all, when they serve food their hands are clearly visible. Their hands have to be clean or customers would lose their appetite. I added that, given the choice, we would have preferred not to get into the workers’ grooming and cleanliness but because they did have bearing on workers’ performance, we had no choice but to do so. Using the memo, I was able to explain and prove that there was no such threat of termination for sporting a moustache. MOM ended the interview and we didn’t hear from them again pertaining to the ‘inconvenient moustache’. There was also no story from the press either. Case closed.

By Martin Gabriel, Senior HR Consultant, HRmatters21

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