Domino's Pizza drops ban on facial hair for workers

Agreement settles 12-year lawsuit in Md.

January 04, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Don't be surprised if your next Domino's Pizza comes with a goatee -- on the delivery driver, that is.

The Michigan-based pizza chain announced yesterday that it has dropped its long-standing ban on bearded employees, while settling a 12-year-old Maryland lawsuit that accused the company of discriminating against a Catonsville Sikh whose religion forbids shaving.

Changing American fashions, not conscience, prompted the nation's No. 2 pizza chain to drop its no-beard policy effective yesterday, said Tim McIntyre, vice president for corporate relations.

"Look around you," McIntyre said. "There are media [and] TV stars, and there are athletes of all shapes and sizes who are sporting goatees. That seems to be the most popular statement of individuality out there in the last five years."

Domino's eliminated its cleanshaven requirement because the public has become more accepting of beards, McIntyre said, and the company's ban on facial hair was making it harder to attract new employees.

But the policy change and the Maryland court settlement are a vindication for Prabhjot S. Kohli, who waged a legal battle against Domino's after the company refused in 1987 to hire him as a pizza store manager trainee unless he shaved his beard.

"I'm really happy," said Kohli, 61, who was in Johns Hopkins Hospital yesterday recovering from heart surgery. "My contention was you cannot discriminate against a competent person based on religion."

Kohli's Sikh religion, a minority faith in India, forbids him from cutting his hair because they believe it is a gift from God. He wears his lengthy beard neatly tucked under a turban.

Kohli filed a complaint in 1988 with the Maryland Human Relations Commission, saying Domino's rejection constituted religious discrimination under state law. The company appealed the commission's initial finding for Kohli, and the case dragged through state courts for eight years.

"I would have preferred to go all the way and get a decision from the court," said Kohli, a project engineer with the State Highway Administration. He has no interest in working at Domino's now, but pursued his case to ensure others are not denied opportunities because of their religion or race. "My main aim was to make them change their policy."

Domino's denies that it discriminated. The company argued that its sales would suffer if it relaxed its no-beards policy, and it also contended that beards on food handlers could spread illnesses. Experts for the state disputed both arguments.

"They wouldn't have lost business in 1988, and they won't lose business now," said Lee D. Hoshall, the commission's assistant general counsel. Pizza Hut, the nation's leading chain, has long permitted its employees to wear beards, he noted.

Domino's had made an earlier exception to its no-beards policy, settling a federal racial discrimination lawsuit in 1993 by allowing African-American men with a skin ailment to keep their facial hair. The company has had steadily increasing sales every quarter for the past six years, according to its spokesman.

Domino's relaxed employee appearance rules come as part of an image makeover for the pizza chain, which was acquired last year by Bain Capital Inc., a Boston investment firm. The company last month hired a new New York ad agency and dropped its slogan, "Delivering a million smiles a day."

The company has 6,322 stores in 65 countries, and 120,000 employees. Most foreign operations also ban beards, except in India, said McIntyre. In Maryland, Domino's employs 1,300 at 124 stores.

As part of the settlement, Domino's agreed to pay Kohli $5,000 for his legal expenses. Kohli has said he spent more than $20,000 to pursue the case.

"This was never about money. This was 10 years of litigation over principle," said Stephen W. Godoff, Kohli's attorney.

Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

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