I n 2003, the Department of Homeland Security adopted a "one face at the border" policy that consolidated the jobs of customs, immigration and agriculture inspectors. A year later, the department decided that the Customs and Border Protection officers needed a clean shave.

But the union that represents CBP officers objected to the department's decision to go ahead with a ban on beards before contract negotiations could be finished, and an arbitrator this month sustained the union's grievance.

M. David Vaughn, the arbitrator who handled the labor-management dispute, said the department fell short in making its case and has an obligation to bargain over such issues as beards, mustaches and hair color.

"There was no evidence of myriad complaints that lack of uniformity in attire and appearance standards was interfering with the accomplishment of the agency's mission or that the public was not responding properly to the agency's officers because of differing appearance standards," Vaughn wrote.

The arbitrator said he was willing to order CBP to rescind its new grooming standards but would wait to allow a related legal proceeding at the Federal Labor Relations Authority to conclude. A CBP spokeswoman said the department is reviewing Vaughn's decision.

The dispute over grooming standards is not the first fashion spat at the department. Until an agreement this summer, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association was at odds with the department over a dress code for air marshals. The association contended that the department's dress code was putting air marshals at risk because it prevented them from looking like regular travelers.

Although the ban on beards at CBP would seem to be a relatively minor issue, these are not easy times at Homeland Security. The National Treasury Employees Union and the department are locked in a court battle over collective bargaining and employee rights. A federal judge has blocked the launch of labor-management rules that would allow the department to override union contracts in the name of national security.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of NTEU, said the grievance is not about "silly rules" but what she sees as a continuing effort by the department to shirk its duty to bargain. "It's a classic example of them not dealing appropriately with the union and the employees," she said, adding that, "in my view, this is something that should have never gotten to this stage."

Kelley said the rules in the union's contract required CBP officers to keep their hair "neat and clean" and said that their beards, sideburns and mustaches must be "trimmed and groomed and not be of excessive length."

CBP replaced those with rules that ban beards except for medical reasons and require that mustaches not extend beyond the corners of the mouth and "must be conservative in style."

CBP said men's "hair will be neatly trimmed and properly groomed and will not touch the collar when in a standing position." Sideburns, CBP decided, "shall not extend below the lowest part of the ear" and "end in a cleanly shaven, horizontal line." Women's hair "shall be neat, natural in color and conservatively styled," CBP said. The previous rules did not address hair color, but the new ones say that men and women can dye their hair only natural colors.

According to the arbitrator's decision, CBP officials testified that they inherited different standards for beards and imposed the ban on beards because it was important for employees to project a "neutral and uniform appearance" and because beards interfere with the use of respirators, which are worn when inspectors work inside cargo containers and other confined spaces.

Vaughn, however, said the agency "grossly overstated" its concern about respirator use: "There is no evidence that such a requirement is applicable to the large majority of agency employees."

As for CBP's concern that time spent on negotiations would compromise efficiency, Vaughn said that "the agency's rhetoric is . . . largely unsupported by the record."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com