If you are thinking of introducing a dress code in your business, or are reviewing your current one, there is the potential that code or a uniform could discriminate against employees of a certain religion, so you need to ensure you avoid this possibility.
With that in mind, here are some of our top tips for avoiding claims of religious discrimination when contemplating the introduction of a dress code or uniform:
1. Make sure the reasons for the introduction of the dress code are made clear to employees
If a dress code can clearly be justified for business reasons, and employees have a clear understanding of why the rules you are putting in place are needed, this reduces the risk of complaints and challenges.
2. Consult employees on a proposed dress code prior to implementation
Staff may identify elements of a proposed dress code or uniform which may negatively impact on those of a particular religion, and may also be able to suggest modifications, so do seek (and listen to) their views. Even if no modifications are possible, the act of consulting will in itself reduce the likelihood of challenge.
3. Dress codes should be sufficiently flexible to enable various religious requirements to be met
Your reasons for various elements of a dress code or uniform should be carefully considered, along with the extent of rigidity. Is it really essential that female employees wear a skirt, in circumstances where you may have Muslim women who wish to ensure their legs are covered? Will forbidding the wearing of headscarves really have a negative impact on performance?
Similarly is requiring men to have short hair actually necessary, or will requiring all employees with long hair to ensure it is tied back neatly be sufficient, and achievable without risk of discrimination claims?
4. Think about human rights
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In some religions the wearing of religious symbols or jewellery is important, so be careful before imposing any blanket ban.
5. What about health and safety?
There are times when health and safety requirements may seem to conflict with religious requirements. Clearly your employees’ safety is of prime concern, but where there does seem to be a conflict, be sure you consider whether any modifications or exceptions are possible without comprising the health and safety of your employees.
6. Who does the code apply to?
It may be that issues could be avoided if careful consideration is given to which members of staff have to abide by a certain dress code. For example if you have groups of employees who have no customer contact, it is much less likely you will be able to objectively justify the imposition of dress code requirements, leaving you more vulnerable to challenge.
7. Choose suppliers carefully
If you are introducing a uniform, talk to potential suppliers about adaptations to meet religious requirements. You may not have any need for modifications immediately, but a good supplier should be used to dealing with requests and have thought about how their products could be modified, and you may need this in the future.
Sometimes requests for modifications or exceptions for religious reason may be raised which you feel you cannot accommodate. But before you refuse, do ensure you actively consider the concerns in question. If you think creatively and engage the employee in discussion, a compromise may be possible, and even if the result is that no compromise can be achieved, the fact that you have attempted to do so will help your position in the event of a challenge.
9. Not all members of any religion have the same requirements
With any religion, there is a spectrum of belief, interpretation and level of observance. Just because you have other members of staff from the religion in question who have not asked for modifications doesn’t mean a concern raised is not legitimate or doesn’t need to be considered and addressed on an individual basis.
10. Review regularly
If you do have a dress code or uniform in place, make sure you review it regularly. The profile of your workforce may change, as may the business reasons for any rules you have in place, such as customer expectations or the nature of the work. Make sure your dress code remains relevant, necessary, up to date and flexible, while meeting your current business needs.
If you are considering implementing a dress code in your business and would like some advice,