“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” – Sir Walter Scott
I caught some chatter on the radio yesterday about a court ruling (apparently in Germany) over whether women can be forced to wear braziers to work (story here among other places). The issue apparently started (though I can’t find confirmation in any of the reports I found by a quick web search), when a female employee who never wears a bra anywhere was asked by the boss to wear one to work. The whole thing ended up in court.
It seemed like a relevant time to weigh in on employer-employee relations. First, let me reiterate that I believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, free markets, freedom of religion, freedom of association (that one will be key). The role of government is the collective defense of individual rights, which ought to be defined narrowly so as to not contradict one another. (Defining too many rights leaves us in situations where two people cannot both keep their rights. For instance, if you have a right to health care then a doctor may find himself with no right to determine his own profession – he must work or you won’t get health care.)
So, what about bras in the workplace. This is one of those situations where good policy requires multiple changes at once. First, freedom extends to the boss as well. If the boss wants female employees to wear bras then female employees have a clear choice: wear the bra or work somewhere else. The boss should have freedom to hire and fire and make demands as he sees fit for the purposes of running his business. To say he must treat employees this way or that is to say he has an obligation to employ certain people regardless of their behaviors (or a certain set of their behaviors). This is not freedom.
Now, because the proper role of government in this venue is to enforce contracts and nothing more, it would be prudent for every employer (and employee) to have a code of conduct and terms of employment agreement up front. (And surely most do.) Still, when these codes and agreements do not cover all possible outcomes, freedom necessitates that the boss (he is the boss after all) have final say on what is or is no permissible in his place of employment for people receiving a paycheck from him.
OK, now that we’ve seen the fundamental position, let us come down in defense of the employees for just a moment. In the US, and it is no doubt far worse in Germany, the government has stepped all over the free marketplace. Whether it’s regulations and filing requirements (e.g. our health care laws) that raise barriers to entry, or intrusion into insurance markets that have inextricably linked employment with health insurance, or insane unemployment premiums and requirements – the government has corrupted any sense of freedom in the marketplace.
Earlier we noted that employees wishing not to wear a bra have a simple choice – put one on or work somewhere else. However, just picking up and finding another job isn’t that simple. I’m not talking here about unemployment in general – high unemployment should serve to lower wages … bringing employment levels up again. Rather, I’m talking about the risks one takes in leaving a job (no health insurance) and the risks one takes in hiring a new employee (filing requirements and potential hassles if they don’t work well).
If the boss truly had freedom, as he should, to hire and fire as he sees fit in accordance with his business goals, then all of these regulations simply serve to make employees slaves – for they now have been deprived freedom of movement in the free market. So, we have a problem.
One way to fix the problem is to make everybody free again. That’s a big change though. The other way, is to keep modifying the rules at the edges hoping, believing in vain, that some day we will find a set of regulations that actually provides reasonable justice to all while freedom to none. What a tangled web this becomes.
In the German case, the court also ruled (because while you’re at it, you might as well rule on a whole bunch of silly things) that supervisors can make demands about a woman’s hair and fingernail length (keeping them short enough, not long enough); men can grow beards but can be made to keep them “neat”; but that employers cannot ban wigs, hair coloring, or shades of fingernail varnish.
From the list, it’s not easy to see the foundational defense of human rights guiding the court. The court said: “Being told to wear a bra and keep fingernails to shorter than half-a-centimeter does not impinge on personal rights … it is not a disproportionate impairment of personal rights.” Please, someone tell me what personal rights we’re even talking about anymore. Or, why the length of “half-a-centimeter” does not impinge on rights … does “quarter-of-a-centimeter” impinge?
The morass will only grow until freedom is restored for everybody.