ORLANDO, Fla. - Some Publix employees have been allowed to put away the razor and grow short and tidy beards.
Florida's dominant grocery chain has been known for its rigorous attention to customers and cleanliness, extending that to stringent grooming standards for store employees. That has meant no facial hair for men other than conservative mustaches and short hair.
But that could be coming to an end. This year, Publix has been experimenting with letting male employees in some markets grow short, well-kept beards. Changing cultural perceptions, employee pressure and a shortage of workers are giving the grocery chain reason to rethink its rules for beards, some experts say.
"There's a changing set of cultural standards," said Steve Kirn, a recently retired lecturer in the University of Florida's retail studies program. "The people who had really strong feelings about not having facial hair are aging out of the customer pool, and Publix needs to attract young customers."
But the clean-cut look of Publix employees is a part of the supermarket chain's carefully branded image, he said.
Publix, an 88-year-old company, did not respond to a request for comment on its decades-long no-beard policy.
Mustaches have always been allowed, such as the thin pencil mustache Publix founder George Jenkins sported. Beards are OK for warehouse workers.
Publix isn't the only company that has drafted employee rules for grooming. Walt Disney World didn't drop its prohibition on facial hair, tattoos and visible piercings until 2012. Disney still has a grooming standard called "The Disney Look" that requires mustaches to be short, sideburns to be conservative and other facial hair to be close-kept.
Jacksonville Publix employee Brandon Wesley has been pushing the supermarket chain to loosen its facial hair standards since he was an employee at a Tallahassee store in 2015 while attending Florida State University. He started an online petition called "Let us have beards!" that garnered more than 20,000 online supporters.
Wesley said he's still a champion for facial hair at Publix, even though his employer won't let him grow it.
"There's been a lot of chatter about Publix making it a company-wide policy," he said. "Hopefully it will happen soon."
Wesley said he wasn't punished for his 2015 beard petition, even though it was covered in publications across Florida and even resulted in a column for CNN Money. He's been encouraged by recent signs such as the beard experiments at some stores in Jacksonville and South Carolina, where Publix is quickly expanding.
"I've talked to customers, and they don't know what the big deal is," he said. "And when I talk to other people that might want to work here, it's one of the biggest reasons they don't apply."
Publix was sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017 after allegedly firing a new hire in Nashville because he had dreadlocks. The new hire said he couldn't cut his hair because of his Rastafarian faith. The case is still being contested in federal court.
As it tries to attract young workers with the low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in Florida, Publix and other businesses may have to reconsider conservative rules on grooming, said Cindy Lowman, branch manager for Orlando-based Top Talent Staffing.
"Companies, especially in customer service, have to be more flexible on facial hair and tattoos below the neck," she said. "Most companies want good workers on the inside, but that may not always match their expectations on the outside."
Facial tattoos are still strongly discouraged by most employers, but Lowman said companies should look at a resume before summarily dismissing a candidate because of fashion trends.
However, she also encourages candidates to be flexible, too.
"Entry-level employees sometimes need to be told that companies aren't as progressive as they could be on things like this," Lowman said. "But it's also not very difficult to get a haircut. It will always grow back if things don't work out."
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