The Iron Lady couldn't bear them, agencies won't touch them, and we don't trust them - men with whiskers.
The office bigot is having a hard time of it in the Nineties. Women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, old people: all the old targets beaver away protected by do-gooding legislation. All except one, that is - the bloke with the beard.

Anomalous though the thought may be in the politically correct Nineties, beards can seriously hinder a man's career prospects. Recruitment consultants continue to be given job briefs containing instructions to exclude beardies from shortlists and personnel departments still widely discriminate against facial hair.

Last September, when Sam Levens, director of the management consultancy Ravenscroft & Partners, was asked by a major British engineering company to find them a new managing director, he was instructed to exclude bearded men from his shortlist. After nearly 200 interviews, the perfect candidate was found: great experience, faultless qualifications... shame about the beard. The job eventually went to a lesser-qualified but smooth-chinned face.

Levens is unrepentant, however: "I agree with my clients that it's hard to strike up the same rapport with a bearded man as you can get with a clean shaven one - in a job where interpersonal skills are demanded, beards don't help.

"I've come across many people who instinctively think that men with beards have something to hide," he adds. Surveys on facial hair and appearance conducted by razor manufacturers and public service industries reflect much the same suspicion. A recent survey entitled 'Bad Luck, Beardy - You're The Ultimate Turn-off' went further and claimed that over half of young women feel that the bearded are not just untrustworthy but, worse still, undesirable (It won't come as a surprise to hear that Wilkinson Sword commissioned the survey).

While it's a matter of argument whether a man in possession of whiskers must be in want of a girlfriend - a recent Cosmopolitan survey to discover the 100 Sexiest Men Alive featured a number of beardies, including flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes and actors Ethan Hawke, Jean Marc Barr, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes and Sean Connery - the bearded continue to suffer in the workplace, especially in conservative institutions.

Endsleigh is amongst the many high street insurance companies which feel that a bearded salesperson may put off potential customers. Graham Thomsett, head of personnel at Endsleigh, is keen that his company's ban on facial hair isn't regarded as discriminatory: "Men with beards don't command the same trust as those without," Thomsett claims.

"Beards are sometimes very scruffy and our sales teams have to be smart. We would find it very difficult to legislate what is a trimmed and what is not a trimmed beard - there is such a fine line. So we do not allow facial hair of any kind."

Steven Palmer, a specialist in therapy and counselling at the Institute of Stress Management, who sports a beard himself, expresses outrage that many firms perpetuate the prejudice against beards: "It's ridiculous and bizarre that this kind of discrimination is going on in the Nineties and, at company level, it's very serious."

Beard-wearers themselves take a more sanguine position, however. Ian Tiller, a 53-year-old be-whiskered civil engineer at The Environment Agency, first grew his beard in the late Sixties. "My superior didn't like facial hair so myself and a few friends grew beards in order to rankle him," he remembers.

"After I grew it, I thought it suited me so I stuck with it. The only thing I'm hiding behind is a chin which probably looks like a rotten potato because it's been 10 years since I last shaved." So much for the cod psychologizing the beard inspires.

In an increasingly narrow and conservative political culture, however, there's little chance that this vestige of revolutionary politics is going to make a comeback. De rigeur in Moscow in 1917, the anti-establishment image came to be adopted in the Sixties by hippies who made beards synonymous with the liberal attitudes of the 'peace and love' generation. By the Seventies, a pop star without a beard was like a trouser leg without a flare and the beard had been appropriated by a wide cross-section of society. As the Eighties swept in, beards were swept out by new wave pop music and, later, the clean-cut preppy ethos that the boom made popular.

Always one to grab the zeitgeist, Margaret Thatcher stated in 1985: "I wouldn't tolerate any Minister of mine wearing a beard". Sure enough, a look at the 396 Tory members of parliament at the time revealed that only three wore beards and none were in the Iron Lady's cabinet. An informal survey carried out in London in 1989 revealed that most people associated a beard with someone who is at least left wing, possibly revolutionary. It was no coincidence that old Labour whiskers started to disappear in favour of clean shaven faces just before the 1997 general election.

Even though Richard Branson sports a beard, the myth remains that facial hair is a symbol of social failure. With the creeping political correctness of the Nineties, it has rightly become impossible to criticise on the grounds of race, sex, size and age. The bearded, however, are fair game. Perhaps anti-beard discrimination needs to be seen in this context: society's two-fingered reaction to political correctness itself. After all, the pc movement is popularly believed to have been spawned by the decidedly beardy liberal West Coast American colleges.

So, if you find yourself bobbing against the invisible fur ceiling in the workplace, you can either reach for the cut-throat or heed the views of the late great beardy George Bernard Shaw. Recounting an anecdote from his childhood to an electric razor executive, Shaw told of how, at age five, he had asked his father why he shaved. Shaw senior carefully considered the question before throwing his razor out of the window and never shaving again.

Bearded Wonders - men who made it despite the disadvantage of facial fuzz

RICHARD BRANSON

Beards are often thought to age a man but the Virgin tycoon manages to look marvellously boyish. Two years ago, he did shave it off to promote a characteristically puzzling venture into wedding shops.

RASPUTIN

Russia's greatest love machine still suffered from beardie prejudice. His enemies not only killed him, but poisoned, shot and bludgeoned him. A little foam and a razor could have done the trick. But then, the Czar's wife might not have fancied him.

ROBIN COOK

After reports of anti-beard spin doctoring, the Foreign Secretary's wispy whiskers are a sign of his unique stature within the Labour Party. But maybe he should grow them longer as camouflage in case of upsetting other countries.

MOSES

One of the greats. He did much to establish the fire and brimstone righteousness which is usually associated with whiskers. Reputedly sported a long beard, possibly inspired by the Big Man Himself.

Mirror Syndicated Inl

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