What if I told you the Navy could save up to $5 million and 30,000 wasted man-hours annually, increase advancement and retention of minority officers and enlisted personnel by 5% to 10%, and improve morale in the fighting forces — starting today — for free?
What if we could mark April 2022 as Diversity Month with an inherently humane and long overdue decision? Well, we can. Change the Navy grooming policy to allow all male sailors on shore duty to grow short, well-trimmed beards.
How would letting me — a white male — grow a beard help minorities compete more fairly with their peers? It’s a little complicated, but read on.
A 2021 study covering more than 10,000 service members showed that personnel with beard waivers in compliance with military grooming policy, often based on a chronic medical condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, or PFB, were denied career enhancing orders either by policy or by culture, endured advancement rates significantly behind their peers, and left the military in numbers significantly above their peers.
The researchers — mainly dermatologists motivated by the stories their patients told of how this condition had negatively impacted their personal and professional lives — discovered something profoundly significant: that having a shaving waiver is associated with delayed promotions. All races are affected similarly, it’s just that Black males are disproportionately affected because they make up a relatively larger percentage of waiver holders.
This is what makes the policy especially discriminatory to Black men, since they are the ones predominantly afflicted with PFB. Unbeknownst to us leaders, this core group, one that we have been fighting to recruit and retain, has been singularly disadvantaged and driven out of the military by policies designed to accommodate their unique medical challenges. The numbers above reflect the annual cost, in dollars and time, of medical treatments and doctor visits that could be eliminated by a simple policy change.
Recent grooming policy changes, based on fleet feedback from Task Force One Navy, have updated hair standards for both men and women, though still “aligned with presenting a professional military appearance while in uniform,” as the policy states. Grooming standards were also changed for those who suffer from PFB, for which dermatologists say there is the only one real cure: to not shave.
This is a positive step, but it does not go far enough. To combat the cultural bias against beards, the service would have to embark on an expensive and sustained educational campaign. The better — and cheaper — alternative is obvious: Change the grooming policy.
To change a standard does not mean lowering it, if the change is informed by data and education. As a former commanding officer, I look back with some embarrassment on how little I knew about this condition that affected some 10% to 15% of my sailors. Every day they suffered physical pain and mental anguish as their integrity and professionalism was called into question by peers, superiors and even subordinates.
There would be no negative consequences to safety or operations by allowing those on shore duty to grow beards while the impact on sea duty is adjudicated. As one sailor put it, “I am an articulate, knowledgeable, proud sailor; having a beard does not define me; it is out of my control. The current policy makes me feel less of a person.”
Not since the implementation of circadian watch rotations has there been an opportunity to create such a positive and impactful change to operational readiness — at zero cost. Recent policy changes allow women to wear ponytails and corn rows, and men to wear flat tops, with no negative consequences. Adding facial hair for men to the list is a logical and overdue final step — one with a huge payoff in terms of recruitment, retention and inclusion. A rising tide floats all boats. It is time to even the playing field for all of our sailors — and change this dated and counterproductive policy.
Dr. John P. Cordle retired from the Navy as a captain after 30 years of service, including two command tours and serving as chief of staff for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic. He has been recognized for his work in the area of circadian watch rotations and crew endurance with the Navy League John Paul Jones Award and the the BUMED Epictetus Award for Innovative and Inspirational Leadership.
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