Despite laws and regulations put in place to prevent discrimination, it is still rife in organisations throughout the world, as both direct and indirect discrimination and through both unconscious bias and conscious choice.

This can often be an unfortunate result of managers attempting to make the workforce more equal or to reinforce their brand, but can perfectly exemplify the lack of consideration some can take for minority groups, and their right to express specific cultural or religious interests.

Adapt or Impose?

In the case of SG vs. St Gregory’s Catholic Science College, it was upheld that a school’s ban of the cornrows hairstyle was unlawful. The decision considered that the school’s refusal to make an exception to policy for the child in question (SG) constituted indirect race discrimination. The boy suffered a blow to his self-esteem after being excluded from the school in North London on his very first day.

The school argued that a voluntary adopted socio cultural attribute did not fall within the discrimination legislation. The judge rejected this argument, holding that family and social customs can form ‘part of the ethnicity’ and that cultural, family and social conditions are often what bring a person of a given ethnicity within the scope of race discrimination legislation.

In a recent case in Lancashire, taxi drivers claimed racial discrimination as the council has proposed a dress code that will outlaw Asian clothing – Hackney cab drivers would no longer be allowed to wear the salwar kameez, a tunic with loose fitting trousers. The council wanted a strict dress code to ‘smarten up’ the drivers – tracksuits, shorts, football and rugby tops, short skirts/dresses and flip flops would all be banned.

The majority of taxi drivers affected were Asian men, and many felt that the proposed rules discriminated against them. The question being asked was whether you can force the Asian taxi drivers to adhere to a code that doesn’t include their national dress. In a neighbouring council, the policy for dress code was for the taxi drivers to look smart and presentable – The Asian men’s traditional attire fell under this category so would not be affected there. Eventually, the Lancashire scheme was abandoned; councillors concluded that a dress code would be unenforceable, impractical, and should be a matter for the individual businesses to consider instead.

The ACAS guidelines state ‘If you wear clothing or jewellery for religious reasons, your employer should make sure that any dress code does not unjustifiably discriminate against you.  In some circumstances, employers may have justifiable reasons for asking you not to wear particular clothing or jewellery, for example, health and safety or security requirements.’

The question is whether any requirement to stick to a dress code can be objectively justified in a particular case.

For example, a uniform in a retail shop that requires women to wear skirts could lead to a complaint from female employees who believe that it is a religious requirement to cover their legs. This dress code cannot be objectively justified.

Positive Measures in Practice

On the flip side, there are various organisations, for instance Barclays Bank, some Police Forces and British Airways who have adapted their uniforms to include the various traditional costumes. For instance, Police Forces have designed turbans and hijab scarves to match the police uniform in terms of colour and insignia.

What is the perception of customers when interacting with staff who are wearing their national costume?  In a recent visit to a local bank in Hertfordshire, I was served by a teller wearing a sari in the bank’s uniform colour, matching the colour /design of other staff’s blouses and shirts.  On admiring the Bank’s policy for adapting the uniform, the bank teller explained that by ‘being different’ she has had different types of responses from the customers:

  • Some customers have shouted at her to ensure that she understands requests and have queried her professionalism, asking whether she speaks English or even understands what she is doing. She laughingly said that they somehow assume that I haven’t been through the interview process and have just walked into my job wearing a sari!
  • Some Asian customers have made a point of joining the bank, as they can comfortably converse in their language and ensure that their requests are understood and met.
  • Other customers have queried why the Bank had to adapt its policy and why the staff member hadn’t adapted her dress code to the uniform policy. Interestingly, the Bank teller told me that, when she works in a central London branch, she does not get asked this question as often…
  • Some customers have valued how the Bank has taken the various cultural needs of their staff into consideration, thereby acknowledging that Britain is a multi-cultural society.

I left the Bank reflecting that we have come a long way in acknowledging and embracing differences.  However, I did however wonder (somewhat cynically) that notwithstanding the Bank adapting its uniform to acknowledge the dress code requirements of different communities (what a great business case!),  what concrete support does the Bank provide to staff exposed to negative customer comments of  the “do you even speak English?” or “when in Rome, do like the Romans” variety.

Fire and Rescue Service Health and Safety guidelines require firefighters wearing breathing apparatus to be clean shaven to ensure that equipment can work effectively. A Sikh firefighter who was getting married wished to grow a beard as part of Sikh wedding customs. The Fire and Rescue Service, having consulted the Asian Firefighters Network, were able to offer the said firefighter alternative work whilst he grew a beard. After the wedding ceremony, the firefighter removed his beard and returned to full operational duties.

The Dress Code requirement in the Equalities Act has provoked question and concerns, elevated by media interest, concerning the risks that organisations face by imposing dress codes on staff. The principle of imposing a dress code is still legitimate, providing it is justifiable and applied consistently and, more importantly, there is consultation and dialogue between staff and managers.

In parallel, as indicated in the case regarding the firefighter, on occasion, undergoing consultation and adapting to the individual requirements, within the health, safety and security requirements still has a long way to go. When staff feel valued they tell others and loyalty to the organisation is enhanced.