Religion - Employment law update

We live in a diverse society and this is often reflected in our place of work.

When people from different faiths work together or have to comply with dress codes, religious discrimination can creep in.

Dress codes

The way a person dresses is one of the ways that an employee’s religion can be most visibly expressed. Two recent European cases have flagged up potential issues with proscriptive dress codes in relation to religious discrimination.

The European Court of Justice was asked if a Belgian company’s dress code which banned staff from wearing any visible religious, political or philosophical symbols, was direct discrimination against an employee who wore a headscarf.

As the dress code applied to all groups of employees, the court found there was no discrimination.

In another case, which was found to be unlawful, the question about direct discrimination focused on a particular employee who was asked not to wear a headscarf after a customer complained.

UK employers take care

In the UK, employers are generally free to set a dress code for their employees as long as the requirements are not discriminatory.

Care does need to be taken when setting dress code policies that ban religious symbols. Employers should consider if the intention behind a dress code policy can be met with a limited, proportionate approach rather than a blanket ban.

Managers may also be faced with dealing with problems caused by the way their employees talk about their own religious views.

Religious beliefs

In 2016 a case was heard, where a young Muslim employee had complained about the behaviour of a Christian colleague which included them giving her a book about Christianity which she felt was “grooming”.

The Christian employee was dismissed for serious misconduct and her claim for religious discrimination and harassment was rejected by the tribunal.

However, if someone was disciplined for just putting forward their religious belief, this would be deemed to be unlawful discrimination.

Holidays and shifts

Employers are often faced with various practical issues with holiday allocations and shift patterns when they have workers from multiple faiths.

For example, is it reasonable to ask a Jewish employee to work on a Friday evening and Saturdays?

Well, in short the answer is if you insist on it you must have a business reason for that decision and show you have a good reason why you can’t change the shift pattern.

It can be a difficult balancing act when faced with the need to give one employee a shift pattern that fits in with their faith if that then conflicts with the needs of another worker.

Requests for holidays should also be approached with caution.

Earlier this year, an Employment Tribunal did uphold a decision that refusal to grant leave was not discriminatory in the case where a London Underground employee’s belief that he was entitled to five weeks leave to attend religious festivals in Sardinia was not a manifestation of his belief but actually more a wish to be with his family.

This shows that in some cases it is possible for employers to legally say “No” to requests just because the reason given is for religious purposes.

However, such requests should be handled carefully and sensitive enquiries made to look at the full facts behind such requests.

Get help

If you need any help with employment law issues do get in touch with Daniel Zakis at our Solihull office on 0121 705 7571.

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