international employment law firm alliance L&E Global
United Kingdom

UK: Discrimination – “no beards” policy is religious discrimination

Elements Personnel agency recruited staff to five star hotels, working in front of house food and drinks roles, and adopted a “no beards” policy as part of their “professional appearance standards”. Mr Sethi, a practicing Sikh who follows Kesh (the requirement that no hair on the body can be cut) refused to shave his beard for religious reasons. Following the agency’s refusal to admit Mr Sethi onto their books, he brought a claim for indirect religious discrimination.

The tribunal rejected the justification of the legitimate aims of hygiene, appearance requirements and client requirements because the agency failed to provide evidence supporting its aims, and noted that the agency had not properly considered potential exceptions for religious reasons and that some five star hotels do not enforce a “no beards” policy. It also observed that in practice a “”no beards” policy is likely to amount to a “no Sikhs” policy.

Practical point

A dress code is permitted as long as it does not discriminate against anyone.

Employers should consider exceptions to their dress code if this is requested by employees who feel disadvantaged because of a protected characteristic, such as sex, religious belief or disability. Refusing an exception won’t necessarily be unlawful discrimination – this will depend on whether the requirement can be objectively justified based on a legitimate business or health and safety reason.

Sethi v Elements Personnel Services Ltd