Organisations cannot take a blanket approach to religions and dress codes – it is a balancing act, says Angharad Harris

When looking at how to accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace, a good starting point is the fact that religious diversity at work is recognised in the UK and that any adverse action or interference with employees’ right to religious freedom needs to be balanced against the nature and requirements of the job.

A good example of how things can go wrong is in the case of Nadia Eweida against British Airways. Eweida was prohibited from visibly wearing a cross at work, as the company policy stated that accessories or clothing items worn for religious reasons must be covered up unless impossible to do so; for example, Muslim hijabs and Sikh turbans.  

The case eventually went to the European Court of Human Rights, where, in early 2013, it was held that there had been an interference with her right to manifest her religion, although British Airways had actually changed its uniform policy before the outcome of the process to allow the wearing of symbolic religious jewellery.  

There is a lesson for employers here about slavishly adhering to a notion of the ‘corporate brand’. Organisations should regularly step back and internally challenge their dress code and other restrictions to religious adherence in the workforce to see if they can be justified.

Engaging in meaningful and documented consultation is also essential. The importance of this has been seen in a number of cases such as that of Shirley Chaplin – a nurse who lost her case on being able to wear a cross at work, as there had been extensive consultation with her and legitimate health and safety reasons for the refusal. Meanwhile, primary school classroom assistant Aishah Azmi lost her discrimination claim after being told she couldn’t wear a full face veil – which covered all but her eyes – while teaching; there had been proper consultation with Azmi, including the investigation of possible classroom adjustments.

Another area where disputes can arise is in the wearing of headscarves at work. Employers need to take on board that a ban would not be justified just because customers might not like it. In the case of Asma Bougnaoui, the Advocate General viewed the argument that by merely wearing a hijab (or a kippah or turban) an employee could be seen to be ‘behaving inappropriately’ towards clients as “pernicious”.  

This case, and a similar one involving Samira Achbita, are awaiting decisions from the European Court of Justice dealing with the question of a ban on visible religious symbols – in both cases the headscarf. The outcome could have significant implications in the UK if it is decided that it amounts to direct discrimination, as unlike indirect discrimination this cannot be objectively justified.

Meanwhile, Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland recently found itself in the uncomfortable position of being in the national news as the discriminatory bakery that refused a customer’s request to make a cake bearing the slogan ‘support gay marriage’.

Religious discrimination is going to remain a difficult and complex issue to grapple with and a blanket approach will not work. The reality is that decisions are nuanced and competing interests need to be carefully balanced and justified.

Angharad Harris is partner and head of the employment team at international law firm Watson Farley & Williams