Employers should review their dress codes

Posted by Matthew Smith on
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently gave its decision in the cases of Eweida and Chaplin v UK.

It held that, whilst the right to manifest religious belief at work is protected, that right must be balanced against the rights of others.

Ms Eweida worked as a member of the check-in staff for British Airways and its uniform policy prohibited the wearing of any visible items of jewellery in order to project a certain corporate image. Mrs Chaplin worked as a nurse for the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and its uniform policy prohibited the wearing of most items of jewellery in order to minimise the risk of cross-infection and to prevent disturbed patients seizing or pulling on items of jewellery.

Ms Eweida and Mrs Chaplin, both Christians, brought religious discrimination claims against their employers after they were prevented from visibly wearing a cross at work. After several years of high profile litigation, the ECHR has held that, in relation to Ms Eweida, her right to manifest her religious belief by visibly wearing a cross at work had been infringed. A fair balance had not been struck between Ms Eweida’s rights and British Airways’ right to project a certain corporate image. As for Mrs Chaplin however, the health and safety reason for her not being permitted to wear a visible cross was of greater importance and the restriction in the dress code in Mrs Chaplin’s case was justified and proportionate.   

Retailers and leisure companies will often require a high standard of dress and personal appearance, indeed, many fashion retailers require their staff to wear their own products. The judgment does not mean that dress codes will no longer be permitted, but rather that they need to be sensible and proportionate and be for a good reason.

Restricting someone’s right to manifest their religious belief through visible jewellery may be justified, depending on the circumstances and the reason for the restriction but there’s no doubt that, as a result of these cases, it is best to bear in mind that a restriction on jewellery for reasons of corporate image will probably not be justified, whereas a restriction which arises from a clear health and safety requirement is likely to be.

What this all means is that you should review your dress codes and uniform policies to identify where there are any restrictions on wearing jewellery or other religious symbols and to re-assess the reason for the restriction to make sure it’s sound.

About the Author

Matthew heads the firm's Education Sector and also has extensive experience of both contentious and non-contentious employment work, in particular Employment Tribunal cases.

Matthew Smith
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