Opinion: How to avoid dress-code discrimination claims in the workplace

Opinion: How to avoid dress-code discrimination claims in the workplace

A recent case involving a BA worker who wore a crucifix at work highlighted the potential issues employers face. Charlotte Black, a lawyer with travel law specialist Travlaw and head of Travlaw HR, explains

Questions of what is appropriate to wear at work arise in many jobs, especially where staff members deal with the public.

A recent European Court ruling went some way to clarifying the rights of individuals to follow their religious beliefs at work, both in what they wear and what they do.

It drew widespread media attention because it included the high-profile case of a British Airways employee who claimed to have suffered discrimination because she was not allowed to display a crucifix when in uniform.

Her claim was addressed in January in a combined ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the cases of Ewedia and Chaplin v UK [2011] and Ladele and McFarlane v UK [2011].

All related to employees who claimed to have suffered discrimination at work on account of their Christian beliefs.

They worked for different employers. Ewedia and Chaplin argued they were prevented from wearing crucifixes at work, and Ladele and McFarlane that duties they were required to perform were inconsistent with their beliefs.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights confers a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The ECHR ruled that, in general, individuals have a right to manifest their religious beliefs so long as this does not impinge on the rights of others.

In the event there is a conflict, an employer must balance this right of an employee against the rights and freedoms of others.

The ECHR upheld the appeal of BA worker Ewedia, but not those of the others.

The court ruled the UK failed to protect Ewedia’s freedom to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 because BA did not allow her to wear a crucifix chain.

It considered BA’s uniform policy aimed to protect its corporate image but impinged on Ewedia’s religious freedom. She was awarded £1,600 in compensation.

The appeals of Chaplin, a nurse, Ladele, a local authority registrar, and McFarlane, a marriage counsellor, were unsuccessful.

In the case of Chaplin, the court held that her hospital had a legitimate reason to prevent the wearing of a visibly displayed crucifix – to protect the health and safety of staff and patients.

Ladele refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies and McFarlane to offer counselling to gay and lesbian couples.

In considering their appeals, the ECHR took account of the policies and procedures of their employers, including on equality and diversity, and held the employers had an obligation to offer and deliver services while promoting equality and diversity.

What do the rulings mean for you?

1. An employee has a right to manifest their religious beliefs. However, there are limitations to this. The rights of employees must be balanced against the rights and freedoms of others.

2. Employers should consider this balance in the light of health and safety, equality and diversity requirements.

3. Dress-code policies and procedures should balance considerations of corporate image with the feelings of staff.

4. Employers should provide evidence of the logic behind decisions and record all disciplinary action to avoid discrimination claims.


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