Religious Dress in the Workplace

Religious Dress in the Workplace

From concerns over corporate image to a wearing a colourful logo and conforming to H&S requirements, the British workplace is rich in its wealth of uniforms.

But the thinking behind uniform culture is not nearly so profound: firefighters need protective equipment, lifeguards wear shorts and t-shirt. If you’re in business, look smart –  whatever that means.

Today’s multicultural workspace has thrown this shocking discrepancy under the spotlight, leaving many bosses and companies exposed as being, at best, woefully behind the times, and at worst, downright ignorant.

To address this growing problem, modern policy must be far more flexible, tactful and considerate when it comes to telling staff what they can and cannot wear.

Read on to find out:

  • How companies have failed when it comes to accommodating religious dress in the workplace

  • More information about the Equality Act 2010 and how this can affect religious dress

  • How to change a culture of discrimination in the workplace

Cases of discrimination

As far as religious dress goes, there is no rule of thumb, rather, it’s a question of culture; cases of discrimination over religious dress are as many and varied as the individuals at their centre.

1) Fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, were deemed guilty of religious discrimination when they refused the job application of a Muslim woman because she wore a headscarf.

The trendy US clothing retailer argued that the garment fell out of line with the firm’s style, but the applicant’s claim was upheld by the US Supreme Court. Abercrombie & Fitch have since revised their policy which now forbids employees to wear ‘caps’.

2) In a similar case, a Muslim employee was given a less customer-facing role because her headscarf did not contribute to the store’s drive to attract “a higher class of customer.” Threatened with redundancy during a recruitment drive, the female employee was given the option of resigning with a good reference or risk formal dismissal with no reference. 

At a tribunal, a claim for religious discrimination was unsuccessful, but the woman in question was told that an indirect discrimination claim would have been upheld. Later, a claim of unfair dismissal was upheld because the claimant was given “a clear indication that she had no future with the company”.

3) In a recent high-profile case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a claimant’s human rights had been breached because she was not permitted to wear a Christian cross at work. It was heard that the employer had not struck a fair balance between the desire to create a corporate image and the employer’s right to show her religious belief.

4) The ECHR also ruled against a woman who wanted to wear a cross at a hospital where she worked, deeming the interests of health and safety to take precedence over her right to wear a religious symbol.

The Equality Act 2010

This landmark legislation covers all people in Britain and protects individuals from discrimination, harassment and/or victimisation. Freedom of religious expression in the workplace also falls under this protection.

Employers are advised to tread carefully around issues of religious dress when it comes to making a dress policy, as imposing bans or restrictions may amount to discrimination, whether intended or not. As detailed by gov.uk, an individual may be discriminated against in the following ways:

  • Direct discrimination: treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others.

  • Indirect discrimination: putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage.

  • Harassment: unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment for them.

  • Victimisation: treating someone unfairly because they’ve complained about discrimination or harassment.

It is important to remember that rules and special arrangements can be lawful, so long as they can be justified. The first of the case studies illustrates direct discrimination, whereas the second could have been a case for indirect discrimination, even though it ultimately led to a victory for the claimant. The third and fourth case studies show how rulings can depend on the working environments they stem from.

Changing a culture of discrimination

Clearly, religious dress codes and workplace uniforms are not mutually exclusive - quite the opposite; they can co-exist seamlessly, but only if organisations put tolerance and integration at the top of the list where they belong.

Firms can make it clear on the company website and job applications that they uphold and actively pursue their staff members’ rights to religious expression in the workplace. Beyond being a moral obligation, such an approach can nurture the ethnic and cultural balance of a workforce, bringing diversity and an increase in knowledge and awareness, which in turn will bring innumerable, measurable advantages.

If employers need to ban the wearing of any items, they should ensure that employees are not being indirectly or directly discriminated against; any restrictions should wholly correspond to real business risks or safety requirements.

Ultimately, employers need to invest real thought into the kind of image they wish to project through their company, and ensure that manifestations of faith can be integrated into this, before any limitations on dress code are established.

For more details on employees’ and employers’ rights on religion and belief in the workplace, click here.

The Equality Act 2010 protects your rights in many ways, not just your right to religious expression in the workplace. Head here to find out more.

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