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Dress, religion and belief, and the workplace

Dress codes can be an effective means for organisations to create the kind of feel, culture and atmosphere appropriate to a particular workplace. In some situations, a particular style or type of clothing may be important to how work is carried out. But what happens when a workplace dress code clashes with the requirements of a worker's religion or belief? How can employers reduce the risk of unfairly discriminating?

It's important not to be too rigid in adherence to a dress code, to consider whether it is really necessary, and to approach any individual request to make allowances to it with fairness and flexibility.

Policies that aren't justifiable could be indirectly discriminatory. Whether or not it can be justified depends on whether your dress policy is a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim', such as specified dress for health and safety, security, or as a necessity to project a professional image.

Considering the impact of dress upon employees' ability to do their job is a good basis to ensure an objective, fair and consistent decision. You could also consult with workers and representatives when developing a code, explain reasons behind your code, provide a way for workers to appeal a decision against them, and make sure you apply your code consistently.

A recent employment tribunal case found that an employer had not discriminated against a Muslim job candidate who wanted to wear a 'particularly long' jilbab (headscarf) to work in a nursery. The employer thought it presented a trip hazard and asked if it might be possible to wear a shorter jilbab or other alternatives, as other Muslim employees were doing.

The case shows the importance of flexibility, and being able to have a sensitive discussion of legitimate concerns to try to find alternative options to suit everyone. Applying decisions consistently reduces the risk that an individual feels they have been singled out for different treatment because of their religion or belief.

Acas has detailed information on how to approach these issues in its publication pdf  Religion or belief and the workplace - a guide for employers and employees [347kb]. Its Equality and diversity advisory service can go through your current policies and practices with you and recommend improvements and help implement them too. Acas also offers training on Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions page for more information.

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