Dismissal for beard that was “too long” and “too religious” upheld

Back in December 2015 I commented on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Ebrahimian v France, which concerned the termination of employment of a health worker at a hospital who refused (on religious grounds) to remove her headscarf when she was on duty at work. By way of a brief recap, state secularism (or laïcité) is a strongly protected principle in French society. That is why you will not hear hymns or carols sung in French schools and there was a big fuss last month when a village commune tried to place a nativity scene in the square in front of the local mairie. It was determined that Ms Ebrahimian, by wearing a symbol of religious affiliation, was breaching her duties as a public official. In its judgment the court held that the non-renewal of her employment contract did amount to an interference with her right to manifest her religion, contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that interference had the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, pursuant to French law. Accordingly, her claim failed.

A similar case has now surfaced in the Versailles administrative Court of Appeal. A trainee doctor of Egyptian origin was dismissed from his job at Saint-Denis hospital centre in Seine-Saint-Denis because his “imposing” beard constituted an “ostentatious display of religious belief”. The individual concerned declined to deny or confirm that his appearance was intended to be a way to “demonstrate his religious activity”.  On 19 December, the Court of Appeal supported the decision, noting that although the wearing of a beard “even long”, cannot “on its own” cannot (necessarily) constitute a sign of religious affiliation, the “circumstances” entitled the hospital to at as it did.

Can you discriminate against a ‘non-disabled’ employee on grounds of disability?

 So, here we are: January. Christmas has come and gone and the warm lights of December have been replaced with the wind and rain of January. Sigh. But anyway, how was your Christmas? I hope it was a time of rest and good health.

My Christmas? As usual, it was filled with random discussions around the Christmas dinner table including, as ever, conversations about weird and wonderful Employment Law cases. In particular, some of my family members were shocked to hear that a non-disabled employee can suffer disability-related discrimination. One even suggested that I make the subject into a blog when I returned to work and, me being me, I couldn’t resist such an invitation…

So what am I talking about? Well, this was the case of Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey which concerned a female police officer who applied for a job in another police force. The police officer had a progressive hearing condition with tinnitus which, going forward, would continue to worsen. When originally recruited for her current police force, she failed the meet the usual criteria for police recruitment due to her low level of hearing but, after the police force arranged a practical functionality test, she was passed for duty and assigned for front-line duties. There were no concerns over her performance during her time in the role.

The issues started in 2013 when she applied to transfer to a new police force. As was standard, she attended a pre-employment health assessment. The medical practitioner concluded that, whilst her hearing level was technically just outside the usual police force parameters, she performed her current role with no difficulties and a practical functionality test was recommended. However, the new police force refused to follow this recommendation and, instead, declined her request to transfer due to her hearing below the recognised standard and, rather importantly, commented that it would not be appropriate to accept a candidate outside of the recognised standard of hearing because of the risk of increasing the pool of police officers placed on restricted duties.

Not so silent night – Christmas parties gone wrong!

Ahhh the office Christmas party. The supposed annual nightmare for the HR Team. Of all the traditional Christmas-related workplace events, the Christmas party sure is the one that surrounded by the most myths.

HR Departments sending out pre-Christmas party checklists? Alcohol being banned? The party itself replaced with a simple lunch or, even more severely, not held at all to avoid legal claims or grievances? I mean, just type ‘office Christmas party’ into an online search engine and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

In recent years, perhaps not unsurprisingly, some employers have simply stopped having Christmas parties to avoid the hassle and stress of dealing with the ‘troubles’ that emerge. You’d think that, as an Employment Law Solicitor, I’d see that as a good thing? Absolutely not! So, why is that?

US firm starts microchipping employees – Science fiction or the future?

Microchip reader Yes, you read that correctly. Microchipping employees. And, no, that’s a real headline. A technology company in the USA has been widely reported as microchipping employees in place of their security and identity cards.

The first thing to get out of the way here is that they aren’t implanting an actual, square computer chip. Rather, they insert a tiny implant (the same size as a grain of rice) between an employee’s thumb and forefinger with a syringe. Apparently, removing it is akin to taking out a splinter (ouch?)

Now, apparently, the ‘younger generation’ are most likely to get onboard with this in the future. Well, I’m in my twenties and I’m not tempted in the slightest. Saying that, I hate needles, so that’s a poor starting point…

Looking at the wider picture, we live in a world of fingerprint ID on phones and being able to unlock the latest phone handsets with your own face. So why is an implant so controversial?

Focus on appearance makes employers unattractive

A jazz bar in London recently came under fire for posting a job advert looking for an “extremely attractive” employee. Predictably (and quite rightly), the internet reacted in protest against the wording of the advert.

Was the advert poorly phrased? Absolutely. Is the act of valuing the looks of an employee above skill morally acceptable? Not really. Was the advert illegal? Not directly, no.

Now, “not directly, no” is a bit of a non-answer. And that’s because a person’s looks and/or attractiveness is not protected under discrimination law in itself. By this, I mean that whilst you can be held to illegally discriminate against job candidates by refusing them the role due to a protected characteristic (the 9 characteristics listed later in this sentence), you wouldn’t illegally discriminate solely on the basis of judging by their looks unless your judgment on a job candidate’s looks was related to their race, gender, nationality, religion or belief, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation, age or gender reassignment (which would then be discriminatory).

Myself? I can see a fairly easy age discrimination argument for any job candidate for that role who is refused the role, as it could foreseeably be argued that the employer has a stereotypical, ageist lean towards younger staff if they are judging on ‘attractiveness’.

But let’s step back from the legal side for a moment and look at the moral perspective. What we are looking at here is ‘lookism’ – i.e. the perception that a person’s looks mean they can’t perform the job (or perform it as well as others). The issue for employers should be the impression they give out by acting in this way – what they are basically saying is ‘we judge more on style than substance’ when, in reality, they should be saying the opposite. Put simply, it risks a PR disaster, particularly if their behaviour goes viral online.

Let’s look at an example linked to two job roles: one for an actress and one for a receptionist.

Disability Discrimination: Adjustments for candidate with Asperger’s Syndrome

In the recent case of Government Legal Services v Brookes UKEAT/0302/16, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) upheld the decision of the Employment Tribunal (ET) that requiring a job applicant with Asperger’s to take a multiple-choice test as part of the recruitment process, amounted to indirect discrimination.

Background

The facts of the case were that the Government Legal Service (GLS) was recruiting lawyers in what the EAT later called “a fiendishly competitive recruitment process”. Applicants would be required to complete and pass a multiple choice ‘Situational Judgment Test’ (SJT), in order to be invited for interview.

Prior to commencing the test the Claimant, Ms Brookes, contacted the GLS and asked if adjustments could be made due to her Asperger’s – in particular, she asked if she could give her answers in a short narrative format rather than multiple choice so that she was not placed at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the GLS advised her that an alternative test format was not available, however did state that additional time allowances might be permitted for tests taken at a later stage following the successful completion of the entry tests.  The Claimant therefore completed the SJT in its existing format and failed, albeit she scored just 2 points under the pass mark required.

Ms Brookes brought claims of indirect disability discrimination and failure to make reasonable adjustments at the ET, arguing that the multiple-choice format of the test placed her at a disadvantage in comparison to other candidates who did not suffer from Asperger’s.  She further claimed that there could be no justification for this, and no reasonable adjustments had been made to the process.

The decisions

Is requesting a holiday from July to September manifestation of a religious belief that is capable of protection?

Where do you draw the line with protection of workers on the grounds of religious or philosophical belief? It is a question that I have been addressing in this blog ever since protection from discrimination on these grounds was first introduced. It is logical that there is a limit. For example, if a person’s belief is used as justification for discriminating against others, there can be no case for allowing the alleged victim of discrimination him or herself to engage in discriminatory acts. Another question is whether and if so at what point the manifestation of a religious belief tips over the edge between a “reasonable” accommodation and one which, perhaps for a number of reasons, “just goes too far”. That leads us to the remarkable case of Mr Gareddu, a practising Roman Catholic of Sardinian origin.

Gareddu v London Underground Limited concerned Mr Gareddu’s requests for summer holidays running from 27 July to 2 September (five consecutive weeks). He joined London Underground in 1990 and was entitled to 38 days’ holiday per year (including Bank Holidays). From 2009 to 2013 he took five weeks’ consecutive summer holiday to travel to Sardinia with his two brothers to visit his mother and attend a number of religious festivals, up to 17 per visit. He said that he would attend the festivals for those saints with whom he felt a particular affinity.

In March 2013 a new line manager, Mr Cross, took over. He refused the request for five weeks’ holiday and said that, in future, he would be unlikely to be granted more than 15 continuous days during the summer holiday period. As it happened the 2014 trip was pre-booked and allowed but a holiday request from 27 July to 2 September 2015 was refused. Mr Gareddu contended that this amounted to indirect religious discrimination, contrary to section 19 of the Equality Act 2010.

At a tribunal in December 2015 Mr Gareddu’s claim failed on the basis that the “asserted religious belief requiring attendance at a series of religious festivals during the period 27 July to 2 September” was not made in good faith. While attending religious festivals was a manifestation of religious belief, being required to do so within a specific five-week period was not in itself a specific manifestation capable of protection under the Act.

Mr Gareddu appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal on four grounds:

The tribunal took the wrong approach by failing to make findings as to the provision, criterion or practice (PCP) in issue, whether the employer applied that PCP to people with whom Mr Gareddu did not share the characteristic of being a Sardinian Catholic, whether participating at numerous religious festivals was a typical manifestation of the religious beliefs of Sardinian Catholics, whether Mr Gareddu was put at a disadvantage as a result of the PCP and, if so, whether the disadvantage was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The tribunal imposed an unwarranted additional requirement that religion should be the sole or primary motivation for the manifestation in order to benefit from protection under section 19.
It considered an irrelevant factor – the desire to worship collectively with his family – when considering whether he had acted in good faith.
It adopted a perverse construction of Mr Gareddu’s evidence by finding that he had claimed to attend the same 17 events annually and, flowing from this, that he had changed his evidence in the course of the hearing.

Does a ban on wearing headscarves amount to direct discrimination?

In a somewhat surprising decision, given the views expressed in some other recent cases, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has decided that a ban on wearing headscarves at work does not (necessarily) constitute direct discrimination with reference to religion or belief. In  Achbita, Centrum voor Gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding v G4S Secure Solutions the European Court was asked to consider a case which was referred from the Hof can Cassatie (Court of Cassation) in Belgium, where the respondent, G4S, operated from 2006 a policy of neutrality which prohibited the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious signs.

Samira Achbita, a Muslim, was employed as a receptionist with G4S in 2003. In 2006 she told her employer that she wanted to start wearing an Islamic headscarf during working hours. After a period of absence due to illness she notified her employer on 12 May 2006 that she was returning to work on 15 May and would be wearing the headscarf. On 29 May the G4S works council approved an amendment to workplace regulations which provided that, with effect from 13 June 2006 “employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs”. On 12 June Ms Achbita was dismissed because she refused to accept the new policy.

The CJEU noted that G4S’s rule covered any manifestation of political, philosophical and religious beliefs without distinction. The rule was not applied to Ms Achbita in a way which was different from the way in which it would be applied to any other employees. Consequently, there was no direct discrimination.

However, such a prohibition could constitute indirect discrimination if the apparently neutral obligation in fact resulted in people adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage. Even if that was the case there could nonetheless be a legitimate aim such as the pursuit of a policy, in relation to customers, of political, philosophical and religious neutrality, provided that the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary. In that case the policy might be maintained, for example, by allowing Ms Achbita to wear hear headscarf at work, but not in a role which involved any visual contact with customers, as an alternative to dismissal. The matter was referred back to the Belgian court for further consideration accordingly.

Also reported at the same time was the case of Bougnaoui and Association de défense des droits de l’homme (ADDH) v Micropole Univers. In this case, prior to being recruited by Micropole, Asma Bougnaoui was told that wearing her headscarf might pose a problem if she was in contact with customers of the company. Initially Ms Bougnaoui wore a bandana during her internship. Thereafter she wore a headscarf. A customer complained and, relying on the principle of neutrality, the employer asked her to stop wearing the headscarf.

EAT Judgment: There can be no disability-related harassment claim without first establishing the disability

In the recent case of Peninsula Business Service Ltd v Baker, the Claimant had advised his manager that he had dyslexia and had also provided a psychologist’s report confirming the diagnosis.

The Employer’s occupational health provider prepared a report confirming that the Claimant was likely to be considered disabled and recommended reasonable adjustments, however the Claimant’s supervisor had reservations about this and thought that the Claimant could have engineered the report in his favour.

The Employer subsequently arranged for a private company to carry out covert surveillance of the Claimant, the reason for this being that they suspected that he was carrying out work for a second Employer. The surveillance report did not substantiate the Employer’s suspicions, however it did show that the Claimant was not devoting all of his time to his work. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced and a copy of the surveillance report was sent to the Claimant during these proceedings, despite not showing that he was engaged in any fraudulent conduct.

The Claimant brought claims at the Employment Tribunal, claiming that the surveillance was harassment (unwanted conduct relating to his disability) and also victimisation as the disclosures he had made about his disability were ‘protected acts’.

The Tribunal found that the surveillance could not be deemed to be harassment as the Claimant did not know about it at the time, however later telling him about it for disciplinary purposes was harassment. Furthermore the Claimant’s reliance on his asserted disability was the reason for the surveillance, so the conduct did relate to his disability. The Employer arranging the surveillance was also victimisation – as the Claimant’s performance appraisals had always been positive the surveillance could only have been triggered by suspicions about his disability.

The EAT allowed the appeal.

Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017

On 6th December 2016, the Government published the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, which will require large private sector businesses to publish gender-based pay statistics each year.

These Regulations are likely to come into force (subject to parliamentary approval) on 6th April 2017, and will essentially require employers with 250 or more employees (within the private and voluntary sectors) to publish gender pay information on their company website on 5th April 2018 and thereafter on an annual basis. The information must remain on the website for not less than three years and they must also submit this information to the Government each year (a Government website will be created where the information will have to be published, however details concerning the Government website will likely be released nearer 5th April 2017.)

The above has raised a number of questions from employers such as which individuals need to be taken into account for these purposes, and, exactly what information do they need to provide?

Firstly, in terms of the personnel be taken into account, the Regulations state that such individuals must be undertaking work for the business in a personal capacity, therefore consultants as well as employees, must be accounted for.

Secondly, with regards exactly what information must be provided, the following guidelines are given:

the difference in mean pay between male and female employees
the difference in median pay between male and female employees
the difference in mean bonus pay between male and female employees
the difference in median bonus pay between male and female employees
the proportions of male and female employees who were paid bonus pay
the proportions of male and female employees in each quartile of their pay distribution

The information must be collated from data taken on 5th April every year, starting with 5th April 2017. The bonus information should be based on the preceding 12-month period, beginning with the 12 months leading up to 5th April 2017.

What happens if my business does not comply?