Saturday, September 03, 2005

Hair, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll

While it seems to be a little gauche to be speaking about while people (largely blacks) suffer without insurance from Hurricane Katrina (see Paul Street's excellent “Natural Calamity and Human Folly” available at, I think it'd be worthwhile to consider how deeply run discrimination is in our society. For example: No one thinks anything of the fact that positions at grocery stores, fast food outlets and similar require their employees to shave beards and take random drug tests.

Why is this discrimination? Simply put: Asking someone to change their appearance to appeal to the prejudices of the company, fellow employees, managers or customers is little different when it is done because the individual is black, gay, Republican or has a goatee. And companies have no legitimate interest in discovering what their employees do off the job, whether illegal or not.

Companies can, should and ought to be legally obligated to insure sanitation, of course. Wearing a hairnet and gloves, requiring that employees wash their hands, etc. are all completely fine. Employee and customer safety should also be a concern. If long hair gets sucked into machinery, there should be solutions on hand, just as if machinery launches particulate matter into exposed vulnerable flesh. And if an employee becomes dangerous, arriving to work drunk or otherwise intoxicated, they should be fired.

Nor do I have an objection to a company requiring uniforms. Here, the onerous nature of wearing the uniform is very minor, as the uniform can be taken off at the end of the day. Meanwhile, the benefits in terms of ease of identification (ever had a hard time figuring out who's an employee and who's not at a grocery store?) and a unified company image far outweigh the cost to the employee.

Shouldn't companies assist law enforcement in cracking down on criminals? Well, no. Companies should not be adjuncts of government. This is true even if drug laws are legitimate, or if the employee on hand is a murderer. Companies should comply with active law enforcement measures insofar as doing so does not violate confidentiality or other obligations, but they should not turn themselves into judge, jury and executioner. The ramifications of government and private industry uniting are, of course, terrifying: Need I remind the informed reader of what happened when companies complied with Nazi directives and accepted slave labor?

However, even if one believes that companies should help law enforcement, that does not justify the current regime, where most drug tests are sealed under strict promises of confidentiality. In this case, the only justification is the company's interest.

And of customer service or sales folks? The citizenry must know that the cost of living in a democracy is occasionally dealing with a long-haired guy at Raley's. Of course, they have no legal obligation to frequent such establishments. If a salesperson decides his appearance does not sell his product well, he may choose to alter it. But that is his choice, not mandated by his employer.
What's next? Restrict drugs, the next thing that's up is sex and rock and roll. Will companies begin to monitor sperm counts to see if employees are cheating on their wives? After all, the ensuing turmoil could affect the company in the long run.

The underlying theme is this: The 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as common sense and a respect for tolerance and diversity, dictates that private actors do not have the right to discriminate, that there must be some guarantee of fairness provided by government and industry to allow a fair marketplace (assuming that markets are just institutions, which I do not, but that is neither here nor there). The right to execute one's private property as one wishes does not extend to “Irish need not apply” or “White only” signs on the door.

Companies have a legitimate interest in knowing some personal information about their employee: Name, phone number, address, past employment history, references, etc. These impinge upon the company's stated task. And they have the right to fire dangerous, irresponsible, unprofessional, lazy or underskilled employees. But they do not have the right or means to be executors of their customers' irrational prejudice or the law.


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