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In the recent case of Sethi v Elements Personnel Services Ltd, an Employment Tribunal held that a “no beards” policy indirectly discriminated against Mr Sethi on the grounds of his religion.
Mr Sethi was a Sikh who adhered strictly to Kesh (which is the requirement that body hair not be cut). Elements Personnel Services Ltd (‘Elements’) was an agency providing temporary staff for the hospitality industry, predominantly for 5 star hotels working within front of house food and beverage roles.
Mr Sethi had made initial enquiries about employment with Elements and subsequently attended an induction/training session. At this session, Elements’ policies on various matters were explained and pictures were shown of the dress/appearance standards.
Elements’ Code of Conduct stated the following:
The impression we create by our personal appearance and what we wear is a powerful visual language which communicates more about us in one glance than can be said in a thousand words. The following are our professional appearance standards and must be adhered to without exception.
Hair styles and colours must not be extreme or unusual and must present a professional business image.
Male: Hair must be neatly trimmed so that sideburns are no lower than mid-ear and hair falls no lower than the top of the collar. No beards or goatees are allowed.
Female: No elaborate styling and hair must be worn only in a bun style.
At the end of the session, Mr Sethi explained that he wouldn’t be able to shave his beard for religious reasons. After internal communications at Elements, Mr Sethi was informed that as it worked with ‘5* Hotels the hotel managers unfortunately won’t allow having facial hair due to health and safety/hygiene reasons’ and that it would not be able to keep him on its books.
The Tribunal did acknowledge that there had been evidence that Elements’ clients had complained about workers’ grooming standards, but found that there had been no evidence of their clients being asked about whether they would accept a Sikh working for them who could not shave for religious reasons. The Tribunal found that Element’s policy was concerned with appearance, rather than hygiene. The Tribunal also noted that there were some 5* and other 4* (and lower) establishments where a “no beard” policy was not enforced and so concluded that if it were a hygiene issue, they would have expected evidence to indicate that it were more or less universally adopted.
The Tribunal held that the “no beards” policy was a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) which placed Sikhs generally, and Mr Sethi in particular, at a disadvantage (depriving them of work) because of the practice of Kesh. The Tribunal did accept that there was a legitimate aim for Elements to seek to comply with their clients’ requirements in respect of grooming standards but considered that the blanket ban on beards was not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
This case serves as a reminder to all those introducing policies that a blanket ban should be avoided where possible and that each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.