Banning a beard could be discriminatory – and costly

If you run a business that has a dress code requiring staff to have neatly trimmed hair and no facial hair, without a good reason (other than to look smart, for example) you could find yourself on the losing end of a claim of religious discrimination.

This happened to an employment agency in London who provided temporary staff for the hospitality industry, predominantly front of house food and beverage roles at five-star hotels. They cited health and safety issues with regards to food hygiene but did not check with their clients when Raman Sethi who is Sikh wanted to join their agency. They simply told him that as the firm worked with five-star hotels, managers, “won’t allow having facial hair [because of] health and safety/hygiene reasons”, adding that if the company worked with hotels of lower star ratings, facial hair “wouldn’t be as big of an issue.” They acknowledged Sethi’s beard was part of his religion, but that having no facial hair was simply “part of the five-star standards”.

Sethi took his case to an employment tribunal and whilst the Judge accepted that the agency may have felt pressure to apply a ‘no beards’ blanket policy, she ruled it was discriminatory as the company could not produce evidence that it had asked its clients if they would accept a Sikh working for them who could not shave for religious reasons. After all, it is possible to use beard nets in clean rooms and food preparation areas, so it is not like a situation in the fire and rescue service where being clean shaven may be more of a health and safety issue to ensure close-fitting seals of breathing apparatus.

Even though Sethi had not done any work for the agency or its clients and the issues arose when he wanted to be added to their books, he was awarded £7,102 in compensation for indirect religious discrimination. So the learning points from this case is that you should ensure that any dress code you put in place does not directly or indirectly discriminate against employees or potential employees.
Posted on 09 Jan 2020
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