Can a Dress Code at Work Ban Religious Items?

Caragh Bailey
4 min read
Can a Dress Code at Work Ban Religious Items? A case study from Employment Law Friend

Case Ref:
Case Name:
Onuoha v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust
Relates to:
Discrimination, Unfair Constructive Dismissal

Mary Onuoha had worked as a nurse for Croydon University Hospital since 2001, most recently as a theatre practitioner, providing assistance during surgery. Throughout her employment, and for many years previously, she had always worn a small cross necklace, a symbol of her Catholic faith. Although not a large pendant, it was important to Ms Onuoha that this was clearly visible as a public manifestation of her religious beliefs.

The Hospital had a dress code at work which prohibited necklaces in clinical areas for health and safety reasons, mainly because they could be a source of infection.

A dress code at work that bans religious jewellery may be lawful if it is based on health and safety requirements.

However, this policy was not enforced for many years. Following criticism during a Care Quality Commission inspection in 2017, the hospital technically started to enforce the policy, although this mainly came via general briefings to staff. In practice the policy was not strictly enforced, and many nurses and other employees continued to wear jewellery and other items which were prohibited by the policy.

Despite this, the hospital began to stop Ms Onuoha from wearing her necklace. This began in a sustained way in 2018, where she was told on a number of occasions to remove the cross, or the matter would be “escalated” and she would face disciplinary proceedings. The hospital did initiate disciplinary proceedings, and Ms Onuoha put in a grievance.

The hospital eventually offered Ms Onuoha two compromises, wearing her cross underneath her clothes, and wearing very small pendant earrings instead, but Ms Onuoha Did not accept these because they could not be properly seen and therefore did not allow her to express her faith. Ms Onuoha was made to work outside a clinical setting, and was engaged for a time as a receptionist, before resigning her post, and claiming constructive dismissal as well as religious discrimination. She left her employment in September 2020, having been employed for over 19 years.

An employment tribunal decided last week that her claims should succeed. In particular, they were influenced by the fact that throughout the period they were preventing Ms Onuoha from wearing her necklace many other clinical staff continued to wear necklaces, despite the dress code at work, and management did not enforce this at all. They also found that other religious symbols, including turbans, headscarves and jewellery were allowed as exceptions to this policy, and it could not be said that the health and safety risks from a cross necklace were any greater.

The case won on the basis that other clinical workers who broke the dress code did not face the same detriment.

The tribunal did though reject the idea that the hospital had deliberately targeted the cross necklace as a symbol of the Christian faith, or that they had acted out of any kind of prejudice towards the Christian faith.

It is possible that had the hospital consistently enforced their dress code policy, and refused to allow any employees to wear jewellery for health and safety reasons, or at least only done so when this was a religious requirement, that a different conclusion would have been reached. It was the fact that management did not consistently enforce this policy and picked on Ms Onuoha that led to a finding that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her religion.

The tribunal will decide how much compensation Ms Onuoha should receive at a later date, although often this is settled confidentially between the parties.

Has your employer discriminated against you in enforcing the dress code at work?

There is much more to winning your case than simply being in the right, our specialist employment solicitors know all the laws and tactics, to make sure you get the best chance at a fair settlement. Get in contact with us and see how we can help.

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