Sacked Virgin flight attendant wins job back in hair row

Australia's male flight attendants: let your hair grow long. But only if you've got a mental illness, and the medical evidence to prove it.

Virgin Australia has lost an appeal to stop a flight attendant, sacked for not conforming to the carrier's hairstyle bible, from getting his job back.

Flight attendant David Taleski now hopes to be back in the air by next week, his lawyer says.

Early this year, Mr Taleski won an unfair dismissal battle against Virgin, which the airline appealed.

The airline had struggled for 15 months to get Mr Taleski to comply with the company's personal grooming manual, The Look Book, before sacking him in October 2011.

But Mr Taleski provided medical evidence to the Fair Work Commission to show that he felt compelled to wear his hair long because he was suffering from a body-image disorder.

He had even taken to the skies in a wig to try to solve the impasse.

The struggle over Mr Taleski's hairstyle involved many meetings with senior airline management and at one point Virgin chief executive John Borghetti was asked to intervene.

The unfair dismissal case before the Fair Work Commission took a year, two failed marathon conciliations and reams of evidence, much of it relating to haircuts, The Look Book and wigs.


After Mr Taleski emerged victorious in January, the airline took the case back to the commission to appeal.

This morning, the commission's senior deputy president, Jennifer Acton, refused Virgin's appeal, writing in her judgment that she was not convinced there were any errors in January's decision to reinstate Mr Taleski.

"No significant errors of fact have been established and we do not consider it is in the public interest or otherwise to grant permission to appeal. We decline to grant Virgin permission to appeal in this matter," she wrote in her judgment.

The commission had heard evidence in the original hearing from a Virgin manager denying the haircuts authorised by The Look Book were too conservative and that it simply "reflected how a typical guest expects a male employee to look".

The manager conceded, though, that the manual "reflected the most conservative interpretation of what the typical guest would expect".

The trouble started in July 2010 when the attendant told his bosses he would be growing his hair longer than the stipulated collar-length for religious reasons, but soon afterwards said the new hairstyle was due to a medical condition that he was uncomfortable discussing.

During the next 13 months, Mr Taleski provided Virgin with five medical certificates which, he argued, proved he was suffering from body dysmorphia disorder, relating to the length of his hair.

But Virgin never accepted that the certificates provided a diagnosis that explained the attendant's persistent refusal to cut his hair.

After he was grounded because of his hair in April 2011, Mr Taleski suggested a slicked-back ponytail look as a compromise, only to be rebuffed by airline managers because The Look Book has no male ponytails.

The section in The Look Book for females, however, describes a ponytail as "sleek, practical and shows off healthy hair to its full advantage".

At haircut talks held with his bosses the following month, a new alternative style was also scotched after one manager formed a belief that Mr Taleski had used bobby pins to achieve his latest look.

The cabin crew member was allowed to return to the skies wearing a wig between July and October 2011, despite his worries the hairpiece would expose him to ridicule and interfere with his hair transplant.

But Virgin sacked Mr Taleski in October 2011 claiming that he had failed to provide medical evidence when asked for, that he persistently refused to conform to The Look Book, and had behaved improperly by trying to involve the airline's chief executive.

Fair Work commissioner Anna Lee Cribb in January found Mr Taleski's hairpiece could confirm with The Look Book because the manual was effectively silent on the matter of a wig.

She also found that the attendant had provided medical evidence to back his claims of body dysmorphia disorder and although Mr Taleski was not entitled to go over his managers' heads in the dispute, his conduct did not warrant dismissal.

She ordered Virgin to give Mr Taleski his job back.

Mr Taleski's solicitor Maurice Addison said his client was not able to talk publicly about the case.

But he said Mr Taleski was happy with today's decision to refuse Virgin's appeal.

"It's the correct result. Given the fact that Mr Taleski wasn't malicious in any way [in what he did]."

Mr Addison said his client had been working in a call centre ever since being sacked by Virgin, and now hoped to get back to work for the airline.

"We look forward to him being back in the air next week," Mr Addison said. "He loves flying, he wants to get back in the air. That's all he's ever wanted. He loves doing that job, and he's had a very good result."

A spokeswoman for Virgin said that the ruling showed that the airline's grooming guidelines were "consistent with many other airlines around the world".

"Today's decision confirms they are a reasonable set of standards for our front line team members to comply with," she said.

She said the airline was reviewing the Fair Work Commission's decision.