BA too “uniform” on policy against religious symbols

The European Court of Human Rights has found that a woman who was prevented from wearing her cross at work was subject to religious discrimination.   The woman was dismissed from her British Airways check-in counter job when she refused to remove her Christian cross.  BA stated that it was against their uniform policy, which aimed to promote their corporate image.  

When the British courts failed to protect her Nadia Ewieda took her case to the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. There the European court found that the UK courts had not sufficiently balanced the competing rights of the BA and their need to promote a corporate image against Nadia’s need to visibly demonstrate her Coptic Christian belief.  The case was strengthened as BA had subsequently modified the policy to allow for the wearing of religious symbols.

Human resource managers very often simply “copy and paste” their company policy from another company – or from templates found online. However, a second decision of the Strasbourg court highlights the danger of such an approach and demonstrates how important it is for companies to have tailor-made policies to suit their particular circumstances.

In a decision that might on the surface appear identical to that of Nadia the court found against the applicant Shirley Chaplin from Exeter also in the UK.  In Shirley’s case she also wished to wear a chain bearing a cross around her neck.  However in her case the court found that her employer – a hospital - was absolutely within their rights to prohibit the wearing of a cross.  The reason for the restriction in this case was because it was against their responsibility to protect health and safety.

The South African Constitution protects religious freedom and the Employment Equity Act requires freedom from discrimination on religious grounds.  In addition South African labour law aims to give effect to international standards.  However, there are workplaces where the wearing of a cross on a chain around an employee’s neck may be restricted without claims of discrimination arising.  Examples would be in manufacturing plants producing food or pharmaceuticals, where there is a need to protect the product; other examples would be in workplaces or trades where the chain may become entangled in machinery and endanger the life of the employee and possibly other employees.

Corporate image may also be an important factor. In a call centre where the customers doesn’t actually see who is answering the telephone and taking the call it is less important than for example a security industry employee.  A recent South African case found that employees who claimed that they needed to grow their beards rather than be clean shaven lost their case.  The employee argued that it was important for employees to be clean-shaven for corporate image and the employees failed to demonstrate that the beards really were an essential component of their religious practice.

These cases demonstrate how critical it is that human resource practitioners do not simply copy policies of other companies, but are very careful to tailor their policies on uniform, workplace clothing, or dress code to the specific needs of their specific company, industry and environment.   It is also particularly important for human resource practitioners to be very clear with employees not only on what the policy is but also the reasons and background to the policy to prevent unnecessary claims of discrimination.    


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