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To Beard or Not to Beard? CEOs Weigh In on a Hairy Issue

The beard is back, and in a big way. The past few years have seen a significant upturn in the number of men wearing their facial hair "loud and proud," both inside and outside of the office-a trend spanning industry, age and even socioeconomic groups-leading to the inevitable question: "To beard or not to beard?"

For the first time in more than a century, a growing number of the world's business leaders are sporting facial hair. Beards grace the faces of Nike co-founder, Phillip Knight; Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein; Time Warner Chairman, Richard Parsons; Jim French, CEO of Flybe; and Walt Disney's president, Edwin Catmull; to name a few.

The front page of the newspaper hasn't been this hirsute since Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gould, Morgan and other captains of industry were shaping the economy.

The shaving industry is not thrilled with this trend, which has had a surprisingly significant effect on business.

According to Newsweek's Alex Renton, "sales of shaving equipment have fallen in both the U.S. and Europe for the first time in modern history," and Proctor & Gamble, who owns Gillette, reported a drop in sales of 10% last year.

The New York Post's Beth Landman points out that "investment bank Jefferies reported that sales of non-disposable razors dropped 15% in the last quarter of 2013."

Growth of Growth

What has led to this dramatic change? Facial hair and capitalism have a connected history. Beards were once considered an indicator of liberal, anti-establishment views and dissident tendencies, championed by men like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

However, not since the Robber Barons, have beards been as popular in conservative, capitalist boardrooms as they are today. The hirsute look is currently not tied to any threatening economic or political ideology, and according to The New York Times, whiskers "no longer code as threat."

One interesting hypothesis is that many professionals began growing beards as a result of the recession. Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal describes two financial services professionals who lost their jobs and subsequently stopped shaving. She also points out that Al Gore grew a beard after losing the presidential election in 2000, stating that "it's one of those tiny luxuries unleashed by unemployment."

A significant contribution to the growing popularity of scruff comes from the technology industry.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Netflix's Reed Hastings and Richard Branson of Virgin Group all have beards, though as Steve Tobak notes, they are all founders of their companies.

The Alexander Group Managing Director John Lamar comments "I went through a beard phase about 10 years ago. Okay, it was a goatee and not a very good one at that...I guess that was all I could muster."

He continues "I still like to go unshaven over the weekend...the rebel in me has not quite died. But come Monday morning, I break out the ol' razor." Lamar believes that the resurgence of the beard has a lot to do with celebrities and techies. "The laid-back culture coupled with explosive wealth that exists in these two worlds has created an ‘I just don't care’ attitude."

Sebastian Dillon of NextShark claims that young CEOs sport beards to look older and wiser, and to display their entrepreneurial, anti-corporate ideals.

According to an article in the Daily Mail Reporter, men with beards "look as much as eight years older than their unshaven counterparts." The late Steve Jobs of Apple is perhaps the epitome of how the image of the CEO has changed over the years.

Beard of Directors

Despite the growing popularity in recent years of facial hair on professionals, the number of unshaven business executives is relatively small.

The Alexander Group Managing Director Beth Ehrgott has only had one client with a beard in all her years of search, but says that "It seems strange to think that beards still seem out of place in corporate America, yet many companies all have diversity initiatives and programs."

Sarah Mitchell, Associate Director in The Alexander Group's San Francisco office, says that there is so much facial hair in the Bay Area that "it's more of the rule than the exception. But I suppose when I think about those working in a more conservative corporate environment, as opposed to Google or one of the many startups, I don't see it very much."

Phillip Rudolph, Executive Vice President, Chief Legal & Risk Officer and Corporate Secretary at Jack in the Box, was fully bearded in 2007 when he was interviewed and then hired at Jack in the Box, and he doesn't believe beards "are even remotely disqualifying."

However, prior to joining Jack in the Box, Rudolph was Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at McDonald's. He explains that while interviewing for the position, the human resources executive "asked how attached I was to my beard. I noted to him that, more correctly put, the beard was attached to me."

Rudolph continues "But I took the hint and shaved off the beard. I remained clean-shaven throughout my five years with McDonald's." Perhaps geography plays a role. Jack in the Box is headquartered in San Diego and McDonald's home is a Chicago suburb.

A recruiter for Shell Oil Company, says that rarely does she see candidates with facial hair, and hirsute executives at Shell "are few and far between."

A Hairy Decision

The bottom line is that if you are going to go unshaven, there are certain written and unwritten rules to follow.

Know your company's culture and whether or not there are regulations or unwritten "rules" concerning facial hair. Do your homework, or simply ask your manager.

If you are going to grow facial hair, make sure that it is trimmed and neat. The last thing any executive (perhaps outside of the creative arts) wants to see is something ill-groomed and distracting.

If you are interviewing, it is always better to play it safe. Research the industry and company. If in doubt, shave! You can always grow it back.

Finally, if you decide to grow facial hair, plan accordingly. Wait for a holiday or vacation so that there is ample time for proper growth. Stubble tends to be perceived as sloppy or lazy.

John Lamar sums it up perfectly: "For me, it basically boils down to the corporate culture. There are places where ping-pong, beards and tattoos are completely acceptable and places where they are not. Having interviewed thousands of executives in various corporate cultures, there is one simple rule I subscribe to as it relates to facial hair-just keep it neat and clean."

"A big bushy beard that could potentially house a family of robins says to me you don't really care about your appearance or how others may perceive you. That doesn't bode well for a future leader."

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