The laws around religious discrimination in the salon
Religion is an important and often misunderstood issue in the workplace. Employees and even applicants are protected from discrimination, harassment and victimisation arising from their religion or belief. The protection can even apply after the person has left the company; for example, if you provide a discriminatory reference.
Remember, discrimination can occur by omission; for example, if action is taken against an employee because they are not a Christian.
How might discrimination happen?
• Direct discrimination would be the deliberate decision to select only Muslims to be made redundant, for example. Here, the decision would be based on their religion.
• Indirect discrimination occurs when an issue disproportionately affects a religious group. It doesn’t even have to be intentional and it cannot be justified.
• Harassment must be related to religion or belief and may affect the dignity of an employee or be an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating act. Harassment can be the use of inappropriate language or nicknames, jokes or even one unpleasant sentence. It is absolutely fundamental that salon owners
It is absolutely fundamental that salon owners understand that suggesting an incident was just “banter” is not a defence. In practice, in cases of harassment, the impact of unwanted conduct as perceived by the victim is more important than the perception of the harasser and their intent. Whether it is reasonable for the victim to feel the way they do is also taken into account.
If an employee feels strongly enough to raise a concern or make a complaint, the employer should take it seriously and deal with it appropriately and correctly. Often the discussion with staff can be very difficult.
When might it happen?
Ten years ago the case of Bushra Noah hit the headlines and still remains relevant. Noah applied for a job as a hairdresser at a London salon. Her application was unsuccessful due to the distance she lived from the salon. However, Noah felt it was because she wore a headscarf at the interview and claimed discrimination on the basis of her religion; she claimed £34,000.
The tribunal decided that there had not been direct religious discrimination, as the salon would have required all applicants, irrespective of their religion, to display their hair as a means of attracting clients. However, it ruled that Noah had been subject to indirect discrimination and awarded her £4,000 for injury to her feelings.
There is no legal obligation to automatically give staff time off for religious holidays or festivals, or to pray. However, salon owners should consider such requests carefully, and often a bit of flexibility is all that might be needed. Staff might take their break to coincide with prayer times, for example, or take a shorter lunch break and use the remaining time for prayer during other parts of the day.
An employer must be clear as to why an item of religious clothing is or is not acceptable in that particular case. But again, this might simply mean allowing trousers instead of a skirt. Most of these issues can be handled with a bit of common sense and there is lots of advice available to employers, but the cost of getting it wrong is significant and ignorance of the law is never a defence.
David Wright is a consultant in all aspects of employment practice and law. He is the main employment law consultant for Habia and provides a personalised support service for UK salons. Tel: 01302 563691 davidwrightpersonnel.co.uk