In modern organisations we recognise and acknowledge that people are not the same and have different needs and aspirations. This blog focuses on the accommodation of religion and beliefs in the workplace, particularly in relation to dress codes.

One of the most contentious issues relating to culture and religion is the enforcement of dress codes. A number of cases have related to employees of varying faiths refusing to comply with a dress code, or being discriminated against because of their dress.

The most recent relates to the French ban on the burqa and/or niqab being worn in public places. The case was brought by a devout French Muslim, who claimed that the ban was a violation of her right to respect for private and family life; a breach of her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and a breach of the prohibition of discrimination. However, the European Court of Human Rights has held that the ban does not breach human rights laws. Belgium has adopted a similar ban and in Spain the city of Barcelona and some other towns have brought in similar bans, as have some towns in Italy.

No such general ban applies in the UK.  Employers have discretion to impose their own dress codes, whilst taking particular care to avoid discrimination claims on the grounds of religion and belief.

In the UK, important cases include those of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Council, and Eweida v British Airways.  In the first case, Ms Azmi was suspended from her position as teaching assistant for refusing to obey a management instruction to remove her veil whilst teaching. Ms Azmi claims of direct and indirect discrimination failed as the tribunal was guided by evidence that the wearing of the veil hindered her ability to carry out her role.

In the second case, Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee of British Airways, wore a cross to work as a sign of her faith. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Ms Eweida as they found that the cross was discreet and did not detract from Ms Eweida’s professional appearance; British Airways’ dress code was inconsistent and the wearing of the cross did not prevent the airline from projecting a corporate image. (However, in contrast, a hospital nurse who insisted on wearing a visible crucifix, contrary to her employer’s policy, did not win her case as the principal concern in implementing the dress code was to protect the health and safety of both nurses and patients.)

Steps to take

These cases demonstrate the requirement for employers to justify any dress code that could be viewed as discriminatory. There should be a fair balance between the respective interests of religious beliefs and requirements in the workplace and employers should use their discretion.

Ensure that your dress code policy is communicated to and understood by all employees.  Consult on any changes to it and carefully consider any objections that employees raise.

Ensure that it does not unjustifiably discriminate against an employee who requests a change or modification due to a particular belief. Such requests should be taken seriously and efforts made to accommodate them unless there are compelling reasons not to do so.

Balance the religious or belief needs of employees with the legitimate needs of the business. Consider:

*   the cost, disruption and wider impact on business or work if the request is accommodated

*    whether there are health and safety implications

*    the disadvantage to the affected employee if the request is refused

*    the impact of any change on other employees, including those who have a different religion or belief, or no religion or belief

*    the impact of any change on customers/clients or service users

*    whether the need to ensure uniformity and consistency is justifiable in this instance.

Above all encourage good and open communications – ignorance is no defence but employer's and employees' lack of knowledge is often a factor in unlawful discrimination, due to not understanding or considering the implications of particular beliefs.