Does your dress code discriminate?

In a recent case in the US, the Supreme Court weighed in on religious accommodations related to employee dress codes.

Back to the US and on June 1 this year, the Supreme Court published its opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

Abercrombie & Fitch is a fashion retailer that markets a popular all-American image to teens and young adults around the world.  It had implemented a “Look Policy” in an attempt to ensure that all of its store employees reflected this important brand image. Among with numerous dress policies this “Look Policy” explicitly prohibited the wearing of headwear of any kind.

Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim woman who wore a hijab (or headscarf) because of her religious beliefs.  She applied for a job at an Abercrombie store in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2008.  She impressed the staff and the assistant manager who interviewed her and it was determined that she was extremely well qualified for the position but there was some concern that the headscarf she wore because of her religion violated the companies Look Policy.

The policy or the issues that caused with their Look Policy was never mentioned to her, the assistant manager didn’t know what to do so raised her concerns with her District Manager who suggested that the policy needed to be adhered to and  allegedly advised her not to recruit Elauf as her wearing of the headscarf would cause issues internally.

Rightly Elauf pursued a case against Abercrombie because it ultimately failed to accommodate her religious beliefs and practice of wearing a headscarf.  Initially the US district court ruled in favour Elauf, only for the decision to be overturned in favour or Abercrombie & Fitch, however the Supreme Court upheld the original decision.

The Supreme Court focussed on the motive of Abercrombie in that if the employer refused to hire the employee because they suspected that it might need to alter its policy in order to accommodate a religious practice then the decision was motivated by discrimination.

In the UK the Equality Act 2010 prevents any employer from directly or indirectly discriminating against any employee on the grounds of their religion or belief.

If a dress code impacts less favourably on a particular religious group it is likely to amount to indirect discrimination if the employer is unable to justify it. For example, a dress code which requires all women to wear dresses or skirts might impact less favourably on Muslim women who wanted to wear trousers.

Every employee should be afforded the dignity, justice, and freedom that we pride ourselves in as a multicultural and open nation; so now is the time to take a look at all of their policies and ensure that they do not discriminate in any way.

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