Employment Law, Leader, Oddstuff

Long hair in the air – what Virgin did wrong

In this day and age, one shouldnt really be surprised anymore with the excuses people come up with. This here is a new one, though – a body image disorder (!) which requires – compels – the patient to wear long hair.

Why is that a problem?

Well, if you are an airline and want your staff to look tidy, you cant have an employee who looks like a hippie. Very simple, but not in Australia. Apparently years of legal proceedings have now lead to the long-haired employee being reinstated after he got dismissed for refusing to comply with Virgins Hair policy.  And he did not comply because he provided medical certificates to the effect  that he was suffering from body dysmorphia disorder.

http://www.smh.com.au/travel/travel-news/longhaired-virgin-steward-wins-back-his-job-20130115-2crno.html 

It is clear from the article that the whole dispute was drawn out way too long and that it became a farce towards the end. Virgin also clearly made some fatal mistakes in the process:

First, Virgin’s ‘Haircut bible’ clearly explained how male stewards had to cut their hair. The ‘bible’, as a company policy, was part of the employment agreement. As a first step,  managers should therefore instructed the steward to wear the hair in accordance with the policy and explain that refusal to do so could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.  Lets assume this happened and the steward then provided a medical certificate in support, basically saying ‘I am sick and must look that way’.

Second, at that stage Virgin should have suspended the steward because they had to ensure that all cabin crew conforms with the policy. No exceptions because of corporate identity issues, customer satisfaction and also, of course, to not set a precedent. After all, you cant say that the policy is important and then allow your staff to not comply with it.

Third, get independent medical expert advice whether you are dealing with recognised medical condition. The independent expert might have confirmed the original diagnosis or rejected it. If rejected, Virgin could have proceeded with the disciplinary process and dismiss if the steward still refused to comply. If confirmed, it all came down to the long term prognosis. Mental illnesses like that are usually unpredictable as to their duration, so the question then becomes whether Vrigin could be required to make reasonable accomodation. That depends very much on the details, but I can think of a number of reasons why Virgin could have refused to do so, the most important one being Health and Safety. Flight attendants must be able to assist  in an emergency. Someone with a mental illness – someone who freaks out when his hair is too short! – probably cracks as soon as situations get really hairy (no pun intended).  I dont want to have a flight attendant on board who first has to check his hair in the mirror before starting emgergency procedures when the plane goes down.

In short, from the very high level article it appears that the reinstatement was avoidable had Virgin followed a clear and structured process. It is quite possible that everyone involved didnt take the matter too seriously when it frist came up. But as this case shows, you should take everything seriously from the start and think through the risks. Or run the risk of  a very expensive litigation later.