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Beards and dress codes in the limelight

Posted on: Feb 04,2020

to beard or not to beard

In R Sethi v Elements Personnel Services Limited, an Employment Tribunal said  that a ‘no beard’ requirement in Elements Personnel’s dress code policy amounted to indirect discrimination, as it placed Sikhs at a particular disadvantage.

Mr Sethi is a practising Sikh who observes his faith including prayer, meditation, attendance at the Gurdwara and participating in Langar. He also strictly adheres to the requirement that the hair of the body is not cut (Kesh) and, therefore, has an uncut and unshaven beard on the basis of his religious belief. Elements Personnel Services is an employment agency that works with five-star hotels to provide front of house, food and beverage staff.

Mr Sethi applied for a role with Elements Personnel and attended an induction session before signing their standard contract for agency workers. Elements Personnel went through their policies at the induction. They showed pictures of dress standards and appearance expected of staff. Their code of conduct also stated that “male hair must be neatly trimmed…no beards or goatees are allowed”.

Everyone who attended the induction was put on the books for work, but not offered immediate employment. Mr Sethi told Elements Personnel that he could  not shave his beard due to his religious beliefs. Elements Personnel told him that their ‘no beards policy’ was for ‘health and safety/hygiene reasons’ in line with their five-star service and so Mr Sethi was unlikely to meet their standards and should look for work elsewhere. He sued them for indirect discrimination in the Employment Tribunal.

The Employment Tribunal said that the “no beards policy” was a provision criteria or practice (PCP) under section 19(1) of the Equality Act 2010. This PCP put Sikhs generally, and Mr Sethi in particular, at a particular disadvantage because of the Sikh practice of Kesh.

Other than suggesting that Mr Sethi should look for work elsewhere, Elements Personnel did not offer any alternative options for him to work with them. The Employment Tribunal accepted that neatly trimmed facial hair was a legitimate aim for meeting client requirements, but the blanket ‘no beards policy’ was not justified as a proportionate means of achieving that aim. There was no evidence that any client had been asked whether they would make an exception for a Sikh worker, and no evidence of what their clients would require when faced with a Sikh worker. In addition, not all Elements Personnel clients had a ‘no beards’ requirement.

The Employment Tribunal said that the legitimate aim of meeting client requirements could have been met by accepting Sikhs, such as Mr Sethi, onto the agency’s books and then dealing with clients on a case-by-case basis (getting an exception for Sikhs who were unable to shave). Elements Personnel could not rely on blanket, untested client requirements to enforce a “no beards” policy that deprived Sikhs of work.

The Employment Tribunal gave Mr Sethi compensation of £7,102.17 made up of  £1,208 loss of earnings plus interest of £96.36 and £5,000 injury to feelings plus interest of £797.81.

This case stands out because it shows how discrimination claims can be brought by people at the recruitment stage. It shows that an Employer must take account of your cultural and religious needs as a prospective employee and make exceptions to blanket policies. Even if an Employer has health and safety reasons for having certain standards, they must be connected to a real business or safety requirement and be justifiable as a necessary means of achieving a legitimate aim. Employers must take a proportionate approach and not impose unnecessary restrictive dress codes.

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