Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

To beard or not to beard

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald in July 2006.

I recently grew a beard for two weeks while I was away from the office. It came in with more gray than I’d expected, but it looked pretty good, if I say so myself.

A few people around town saw the beard, and I even brought the beard with me to work one day for show and tell before I shaved it off.

The experience got me thinking about beards and their status in the workplace, especially in office environments. Though beards have become more acceptable in the business world (think Steve Wozniak and Larry Ellison), we’re not all dot.com whiz kids.

So, is it okay for a typical executive or CEO in the East Bay to have a beard?

“I started with a full beard around 1981,” said Neal Snedecor, who works for the City of Livermore and meets regularly with business owners in his economic development role. “My friends convinced me to drop the full beard and go with a goatee in the early ‘90s as a trendy thing.”

Snedecor said his facial hair has never been an issue at work.

Another beard-toting executive is Ken Mercer, former mayor of Pleasanton and now a Vice President with ValleyCare Health System.

“I've had my beard for about 30 years,” said Mercer, “and no one at work has ever said a word about it.” Mercer said he initially grew the beard because he wanted to try it, and then liked it.

“I shaved it off once and grew it back the next day,” he said. “I trim it every day as I don't want it to get shaggy.”

While Mercer had his beard during his 16 years on the city council, including 11 years as mayor, most men in politics play it safe and shave. This is especially true of modern United States presidents who, with the advent of television, have been clean-shaven.

After all, some people associate beards with counterculture, seeing facial hair as sending an anti-establishment message. Where would beatniks and hippies have been without their goatees and flowing beards?

Desmond Morris, the British zoologist who studies human behavior and is best known for his book “The Naked Ape," believes that men began the practice of shaving because it made them look younger, friendlier and cleaner.

On the other hand, beards in western civilization are also associated with wisdom. The ancient Greeks, most depictions of Jesus, leaders like Lincoln and scores of university professors have helped promote the notion that beards signal knowledge and stature.

But then again there’s the beard as tough guy, the unfettered Clint Eastwood-type who drifts around saving innocent villages from outlaws, but seems a bit of an outlaw himself.

And what about the beard as director, actor and writer? Picture Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway.

And does the actor-on-vacation stubble count as a beard? If Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck walking unshaven through airports can draw paparazzi and adoring fans, shouldn’t this fashion trend translate even a little into the corporate world?

With so many beard messages, what’s an executive to do?

“A CEO is a public figure who must recognize a broader responsibility,” said Jim Halliday, former CEO of HumanWare who lives in Danville and currently sports a closely-cropped beard. “He or she must personify the image that presents that institution in its best light.”

Halliday said he opted to be clean-shaven when he was the company’s CEO, but is comfortable with a beard in his new role as president emeritus where he sits on a number of industry boards and tours the country speaking on Braille literacy and vision impairment.

“My beard reflects the earthier side of my personality,” he said, “the side that makes me feel comfortable on a stage or in a vineyard.”

So, to beard or not to beard?

Perhaps it comes down to personal preference after assessing the culture and expectations within your company.

“I enjoy the salt-and-pepper effect,” Snedecor said about his neatly trimmed goatee. “It’s kind of the Sean Connery look, so I’ll keep it for now to save time in the mornings, to avoid nicks and cuts, and maybe, just maybe, to add a sense of intrigue to my demeanor.”


she said...

my attention is drawn to eyes and smiles...

i'll look at men differently today.

cast my vote at a later date.

-thanks for the intriguing read!-


she said...

hi jim!

i've been checking out men everywhere (with such a legitimate excuse... "i'm doing some research for my friend jim ott")

and here's my vote:

i can't decide!

gonna head downtown and research some more ")

good sunday morning! ~s.