Religious dress in the workplace – discrimination law

In the widely reported case of Begum v Pedagogy Auras UK Ltd t/a Barley Lane Montessori Day Nursery, Ms Begum, a nursery assistant failed in her claim that her would be employer’s request that she wear something shorter than a full length jilbab was discriminatory.

Ms Begum had applied for a post as a nursery assistant and was asked at interview whether she would be able to wear something shorter than the full length jilbab in which she presented for interview. A jilbab is an outer garment covering the wearer from neck to ankle. In the view of the interviewer the jilbab was likely to present a risk to her and/or the children as it was seen as a trip-hazard.

Ms Begum felt that she had every right to wear the jilbab which was a religious garment of considerable importance to her. In being asked not to wear it she felt she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion. In the event neither the employment tribunal nor the appeal tribunal agreed with her.

When considering the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted a) that an ankle length jilbab (i.e. one that stops short of the ankle) would have been permissible under Ms Begum’s religion, and so the request to wear a shorter jilbab could not be regarded as discrimination and b) even if it had been discriminatory, the discrimination would in any case have been regarded as justified on the basis that it (i.e. the request to wear a shorter jilbab) would have been a provision, criterion or practice (‘PCP’) which was genuinely intended to achieve a legitimate aim, in this case to reduce the trip hazard of a garment dragging on the floor.

A victory for common sense then, but deciding what is reasonable for employers to expect when it comes to telling employees what to wear/not to wear in the workplace is a challenge, and it isn’t confined to religious dress either. As employers can we ask people what to wear or not to wear? What about all those piercings & tattoos, whacky hairstyles and designer stubble? For our practical guide on the thorny topic of workplace dress please click here.

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