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The Law & Company Uniforms When It Comes To Religion

Posted by Xamax on 12/01/17 06:17

In this age of political correctness and compensation claim culture, it's a wise move to check the law on company uniforms in terms of religious expression. This should help to minimise the risk to your business.

church window with blog title

Image Credit

The Law - With Examples

In short, an employer can not create a compulsory uniform policy which unfairly hinders expression of one's religious or atheist beliefs. You cannot directly or indirectly discriminate against someone's religious expression.

But if the religious belief impacts on their performance or health and safety, then, legally, a person cannot demand exemption from the rules.

The Equality Act 2010 lists Religion as one of the characteristics which is protected from discrimination, under law, in this country.

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

A complication arises because there is no precise answer- as is often the way with UK law - as to what constitutes discrimination of someone's religious beliefs.

For example, issuing a uniform which has an embroidered crucifix on the chest or a slogan such as "Christ Will Come Again" would clearly discriminate against all non-Christians (though an individual may be willing to wear it regardless, of course).

But the waters become muddy when an Atheist isn't allowed to wear jewellery with their uniform at the same time that a Christian can wear a crucifix necklace. Likewise, the employment of people practising a faith with overt dress code requirements (e.g. Rastafarianism, Sikhism or some areas of Islam) can cause difficulties.

This is because businesses run the risk of creating indirect discrimination. This happens when a uniform policy negatively impacts one employee compared to another.

The case of Eweida and others v United Kingdom [2013] IRLR 231 ECHR arose from a Christian worker having to keep religious items hidden. It was decided employee and employer had not struck "a fair balance" between the desire to express religious beliefs and the employer wishing to manage a corporate image.

The case resulted in the employer permitting open wearing of religious jewellery.

The wearing of faith-denoting jewellery is not a requirement of being a Christian, but it is a very common act which fits into the belief of spreading the word of the Lord. Other religions, however, do prescribe actions which impact how a person must dress.


rosary beads on table

Rosary bracelets are sometimes worn by Christians, but are also often a fashion item. Yet more evidence of what a grey area this is. Image Credit


In the case of employing persons who this applies to - Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs - it is advised that you build some flexibility into your uniform policy and allow certain optional accessories, e.g. optional headscarfs.

For more contentious items, notably the full veil worn by some Muslim women, the famous case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan BC is worth noting.

Azmi was working as a teaching assistant. She was not permitted to wear her face cover when working with a male teacher, which was her religious desire.

But her case was unsuccessful due to the fact that facial expression and engagement was key when working with the children.

Again, this shows that if a religious belief impacts on performance or health and safety, then, legally, a person cannot demand exemption from the company rules.

When looking for further legal precedent as advice, a lot can be learned from Department for Work and Pensions v Thompson [2003] at the Court of Appeal EAT which concerns another area of the Equality Act's protected characteristics - Sex.

Thompson had previously won compensation that his employer's uniform policy discriminated against men.

The policy stated that Job Centre Plus employees should dress "in a professional and business-like way". It specifically prescribed men to wear a shirt and tie, but it was subjective in regards to women, stating they were "to dress appropriately and to a similar standard".

Thompson (and over 6,000 male colleagues from around the country) had resented the fact that women were permitted to wear less formal clothing around the office.

But DWP overturned Thompson's win on the grounds that the policy clearly expected both sexes to dress "in a professional and business-like way". The policy was due to be enforced at a local level by middle management - it was not the policy maker's fault if this was not happening in certain Job Centre Plus offices.

Which leads us to where you should go from here.


Advice On Avoiding Legal Trouble

Dialogue and compromise will solve most problems.

First and foremost, speak to any employees who might be affected by a change in uniform policy in regards to their religious beliefs.

The likelihood is that, if you already employ them and haven't had any issues regarding what is/isn't being worn around the office, consultation about the upcoming policy change will nip any potential issues in the bud.

Furthermore, you can always include manager discretion within your policy and ask that employees consult their senior colleagues for what is and isn't acceptable.


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Topics: Uniforms