Plain English Guide to British Employment Law
European Court of Justice: headscarves can be banned in the workplace
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that companies are legally allowed to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols. Employers now potentially have the right to dismiss employees for not “dressing neutrally” in the workplace, regardless of their competency, as long as they have a policy of neutrality which applies to all religious and political symbolism. The decision comes amidst reports of increasing xenophobic behaviour and recurring claims of racial discrimination – particularly to females – in the workplace.
Numerous claims of prejudice towards women wearing headscarves have emerged over recent years. One of these claims, which led to the decision by the ECJ, concerned design engineer Asma Bougnaoui who received a customer complaint for wearing her Muslim headscarf, resulting in her dismissal from French IT consultancy, Micropole. The ECJ followed a previous opinion by Juliane Kokott, an Advocate General to the European Court of Justice, which stated: “A ban on wearing headscarves in companies may be admissible if the ban is based on a general company rule which prohibits political, philosophical and religious symbols from being worn visibly in the workplace. Such a ban may be justified if it enables the employer to pursue the legitimate policy of ensuring religious and ideological neutrality.”
The ECJ ruled that: “An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.” However, some commentators are concerned that this new judgment is confusing in light of a previous ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which allowed the wearing of crosses at work and said that wearing religious symbols is “sometimes an employee’s right to manifest freedom of religion”.
Moving away from religious dress, the Dorchester Hotel recently came under scrutiny for stringent grooming rules for female employees. Reports claim that some of the requirements include asking women not have oily skin, bad breath or “garish” makeup and encouraging them to shave their legs. Speaking to The Guardian, Kiran Daurka, an employment lawyer at Leigh Day, noted that she would “have concerns where a policy seemingly objectifies women by asking them to look a certain way which has no bearing on their ability to do a job … hair removal is clearly about objectification and sexualisation, as there is some ideal of what a woman should look like.”