Q: I run a small business with a wide-ranging cultural customer base. This means I need to maintain a visible neutral stance regarding religion. My dilemma is that I want to promote a hard-working young Muslim woman, who wears a headscarf, to a customer facing role. Whether or not she would be willing to remove her headscarf could have a bearing on my decision but I am not sure I can even ask her the question without getting myself into a discrimination dispute. What is the legal position on this?
A: A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice decided that Muslim staff could be banned from wearing headscarves at work, but only by means of a no-headwear rule being applied to all staff.
Whilst the Court’s decision was based on an employer’s right to ban "the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign", such a right only applies if employers already have a policy in place which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace. Quite how a headscarf could be deemed to be a religious sign is hard to imagine. So you cannot just ask your employee to remove her headscarf on the grounds that your customers might not like it. A burkha may be a different proposition in a customer facing role, though a turban would not be. No one would want to see a baseball cap.
The key to avoiding a discrimination challenge is to ensure you have a well-documented dress policy in place and apply it consistently across your workforce with good reasons that are clearly not based on perceived prejudice. If you are in any doubt about the correct wording you should seek legal advice.
(Article published 17/04/2017)