January 27, 2020
In the case of R Sethi v Elements Personnel Services Ltd, an Employment Tribunal had to determine if the Claimant had been subjected to indirect discrimination by a recruitment agency for refusing to keep him on their books due to his refusal to shave his beard for religious reasons.
Elements Personal Services Ltd recruited staff for five-star hotels for a variety of roles who implemented a no beards policy due to professional appearance standards. Mr Sethi was a practising Sikh and adhered strictly to Kesh (the requirement that hair on the body not be cut). Mr Sethi explained these beliefs to the HR manager.
The agency refused to take Mr Sethi onto their books due to his refusal to shave his beard stating that this conflicted with their professional appearance standards. Mr Sethi pursued a claim for indirect religious discrimination. Elements Personal Services Ltd argued that they had a legitimate aim for implementing such policy, namely hygiene and appearance requirements. The Tribunal rejected these aims as no evidence was provided to support these aims and held that Mr Sethi had been racially discriminated against. The Tribunal commented that the introduction of the aim of hygiene differed from the reasons that were provided to Mr Sethi at the time.
Generally, a company can implement dress codes but should consider variations to these if requested by employees who feel that they are disadvantaged due to a protected characteristic such as sex, disability or religious belief. Refusing an exception to the dress code, however, won’t necessarily amount to unlawful discrimination provided the employer can demonstrate that they are trying to achieve a legitimate aim and have considered how to do so in a non-discriminatory way.