A common theme of this Blog over the last few weeks concerns banning certain forms of dress or appearance (Burka bans and horse racing in a hijab published on 1 August 2019).
Imposing a ban in relation to dress codes or appearance can be problematic legally speaking because such an approach could be tantamount to indirect discrimination in terms of Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010.
Several of my previous blogs have addressed the issue of indirect discrimination.
So it was with some interest that I read a story recently about Burger King’s plans to prevent male staff from wearing beards while working in its restaurants throughout the region of Catalunya/Catalonia in Spain. Immediately, I thought about the legal consequences of such a ban being introduced to UK Burger King outlets. The test for indirect discrimination is whether a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) imposed by an organisation is likely to have a disproportionately adverse effect on certain groups of individuals who possess a characteristic protected by law (in the UK, we are primarily talking about the Equality Act).
Unsurprisingly, this attempt to impose a blanket ban on Burger King’s male employees fell foul of the Spanish Constitution’s provisions on equality. I would be prepared to stick my neck out and argue that a similar result would almost certainly be replicated in the UK had Burger King attempted to introduce such a ban. I wasn’t really surprised by this outcome because Spain, as an EU member state, has very similar equality and discrimination laws to the UK. In fact, the current concept of indirect discrimination in the Equality Act 2010 is derived from EU Law.
So, who might be affected if an employer implements a blanket ban on the wearing of beards in the work place? Quite a lot of male employees as it turns out, for example, very religious and observant Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Furthermore, members of the Russian and Greek Orthodox faith groups and Rastafarians may also face real issues complying with such a requirement imposed by the employer. In short order, such bans may infringe religious and cultural expression and may not only be a breach of the Equality Act, but could also represent a breach of human rights laws under the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It is always open to an organisation, of course, to argue that dress codes or enforcing strict rules about an individual’s personal appearance can be objectively justified. In the past, banning beards or regulating the length of hairstyles in the work place have been justified successfully by employers or organisations on health and safety grounds i.e. primarily concerning hygiene (see Singh v Rowntree Mackintosh (1979) ICR 554 and Panesar v Nestle Co Ltd  IRLR 64 CA).
Each attempt to justify a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) will, of course, turn on its facts and it would be very foolish for organisations to think that there is some sort of magic bullet or get out of jail card which can be used in every situation to justify or excuse conduct which would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination. Organisations should review policies on a regular basis and, if need be, this may necessitate the carrying out of an equality impact assessment.
Recently, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has significantly relaxed its total ban on male service personnel wearing beards (moustaches were permitted). This change of heart by the RAF has been motivated by the realisation that individuals from ethnic and religious minorities were being actively deterred from applying to join the service because of the ban on beards.
Even the argument that beards are unhygienic is being undermined with Professor Michael Moseley, presenter of the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor“, highlighting recent, scientific evidence that clean shaven men represent a greater threat to hygiene than their bearded counterparts.
Links to the stories on Burger King’s attempt to ban the beard, the RAF’s change of policy and whether beards are actually unhygienic can be found below:
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 August 2019