Beards, Dress Codes and Discrimination. Why Employers need to be aware

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The Employment Tribunal in the recently reported case of Sethi v Elements Personnel was called upon to consider a case regarding a practising Sikh who adhered to the religious requirement that body hair could not be cut. Accordingly, he had a beard. He had sought work with an agency which worked with five-star hotels. The agency had a blanket “no beards” policy which only focused on appearance, apparently in response to client demands and did not consider other factors such as health and safety or hygiene. The individual explained that he would not be able to cut his beard on religious grounds. The agency said that it required all staff to be clean-shaven and sought to rely on health, safety and hygiene reasons for this policy.

The individual claimed that the policy was indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of his religion because it placed him and others of his religion at a disadvantage. The agency argued that it could objectively justify the policy because it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim in other words, that of complying with client requirements. The Tribunal accepted that the agency had a legitimate aim but did not accept that no beards was a means of achieving that aim. It concluded that there was no justification for the approach taken by the agency. It was suggested by the Tribunal that a more proportionate means of achieving the agency’s aim would have been to take on the individual and then address and/or challenge the client’s requirements on a case by case basis.

Whether employers in the circumstances would find this suggestion practical or workable is another matter but employers are advised to review any dress codes they have in the light of this decision. It is important to ensure that such policies do not discriminate on the grounds of a protected characteristic such as religion. Employers should either remove a dress code requirement or ensure that they can properly justify any potentially discriminatory criteria which may appear neutral because they apply to all, but which in fact disadvantage a particular group. 

If you have a question on this, or any other area of employment law, or are an employer looking to update your office manual or procedures, why not contact one of Alexander JLO’s expert employment lawyers and see what we can do for you?

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