Dressing for work

The government has released some useful guidance to assist employers in getting to grips with worker’s rights and the law surrounding dress codes in the workplace. The guidance acknowledges that employers should have the power to draft and enforce a workplace dress code policy but must ensure that it is not discriminatory in nature. There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding such policies and it can be difficult for employers to get the balance right. Can a policy require a male employee to wear a tie? A female employee a skirt? What should your stance be on manicured nails? While the guidance does not change the law in this area, it does provide some welcomed clarity (although it is not without its critics).

As you may recall, the ‘high heel scandal’ brought dress code discussions to the media forefront back in 2016 after a temp worker, Nicola Thorp was sent home on the first day of her assignment at a large London firm for wearing flat shoes. It was stated within the employment agency’s Grooming Policy that female staff were required to wear smart shoes with a heel height of between two and four inches. Nicola was advised by the agency that she could take time out of the working day to purchase a suitable pair and was sent home without pay when she refused.

As a result of her treatment, Nicola submitted a petition to government to make illegal any policy which forced women to wear high heels at work. The petition received 152,420 signatures over a six month period and gained the right to be debated in parliament on the 4th of March 2017. The government’s view is that the current legislation is clear and sufficient enough as it stands to protect employee’s rights. While pledging to take action to remove the barriers to equality for women at work, the government maintains that employers are entitled to set dress codes for their employees provided that they are reasonable.

A joint report by the Petitions and Women and Equalities Committees however has called on the government to do more

Gender Pay Gap Reporting: Myth-busting

I write further to the deadline for Gender Pay Gap Reporting expiring last week. Much has been made in the media of that deadline being the day by which qualifying employers (i.e. those with 250 or more employees) have to submit the percentage difference in pay between their male and female staff.

The initial results? Nearly 80% of those employers who have responded (some haven’t) have reported higher pay levels to men than women.

So, that means that those employers are discriminating against women, right? Well, not necessarily. But the figures are there in black and white – surely, every employer with a higher pay towards males is inherently sexist? Not really.

The reality is that the figures are suggestive only and there are many legitimate reasons why pay may be skewed either way, whether towards males or females. Let’s take a look and bust some myths about the Gender Pay Gap Reporting.

Do the recent Equality & Human Rights Commission proposals to ‘combat’ sexual harassment make sense?

The Equality & Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”) is a fantastic organisation that seeks to protect employees and workers from discrimination at work. I regularly read their published Reports and publications because they interest me and keep me informed of potential future developments, which is handy given my sizable discrimination-related workload for employees and employers alike.

The EHRC have recently published their most recent Report: “Turning the tables: Ending sexual harassment at work”. The Report raises well-known concerns about the lack of support provided to, and the pressure and detriment placed upon, individuals who identify sexual harassment issues in the workplace.

As usual, the Report ends with some law reform-based recommendations for the Government to consider to improve matters. And, rather unusually with an EHRC Report, whilst I completely agree with the motive behind the recommendations, I can’t much see how the majority of the recommendations themselves will make much positive difference. For me, it appears to be a case of ‘good intent, bad execution’.

But, rather than simply take my word for it, let’s explore some of the recommendations and have a proper look.

Coming back for seconds: Waiter appeals dismissal for ‘rude, aggressive’ behaviour due to ‘being French’

As an Employment Solicitor, I deal with multiple discrimination claims. Personally, I find the majority of discrimination claims fascinating. Why? Because they are so varied and can be brought due to behaviour linked (in almost any way) to an individual’s gender, age, belief or religion, race, sexual orientation, disability, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or nationality.

As you’ll have no doubt spotted from the unusual title, it’s that last one, nationality, which I want to explore today.

Before we get into the legal angle, let’s quickly look at the facts. A waiter is reported to have taken action against a restaurant in Vancouver for his dismissal last year. His former employer stated that his dismissal was due to his “aggressive tone and nature” with colleagues further to previous verbal warnings as to his “combative and aggressive” behaviour towards fellow staff.

The waiter, Mr Guillaume Rey, has argued that his dismissal (and the reasoning behind it) is discriminatory because French culture “tends to be more direct and expressive”. Yes, that’s right, his core argument is that his confrontational behaviour should have been overlooked and/or condoned simply because he was French.

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.

Is Buddy the Elf a good employee?

 It’s nearly here! Christmas is just five days away! The radio stations are playing Last Christmas by Wham on loop, supermarkets are clogging up the TV with advertisements for gooey desserts and it’s getting easier and easier to spot those remaining advert calendar squares!

Every family tends to have an annual pre-Christmas tradition and I’m no different. In fact, mine is to visit my younger family members each year and watch Elf with them. For those not in the know, Elf is a Christmas film which came out in 2003 and stars Will Ferrell as a human who is adopted by Santa’s elves and raised as a Christmas Elf at the North Pole. It sounds terrible but, in fact, it’s a cult classic that was named Best Christmas film in a recent survey!

Anyway, what better time of the year to explore whether or not Buddy the Elf is a good employee or not? I mean, it is an employment law-related and Christmas-themed topic, so what are we waiting for? Let’s travel through the Candy Cane forest and explore this further!

So, to give us some background, Buddy was a baby at an orphanage who snuck into Santa’s sack one night. When Santa discovers him at the bottom of his sack upon his return to the North Pole, an elf adopts him and raises Buddy as his own. Unfortunately, Buddy grows at three times the rate (and height) of the elves and, eventually, discovers that he is a human, not a Christmas Elf. Aside from his height, this is especially noticeable when Buddy can ‘only’ make 85 Etch-A-Sketches a day rather than his 1,000 daily target in Santa’s workshop. Upon discovering that he is human, Buddy goes to New York to find his real father and save him from the naughty list, as well as looking for a more normal life.

During the film, Buddy has work experience at his real father’s book company, work experience in a mail room and works as an employee of a large department store in the Christmas section. Buddy is dedicated and keen but, overall, was he a good employee (by UK employment law standards)?

Is sacking an employee who has miscarried an act of pregnancy-related discrimination?

Employment Law book Earlier in my legal career, I helped advise an individual who was subjected to detrimental treatment by her employer due to time off linked to a miscarriage. Naturally, I won’t identify the individual or the specific facts here but, save to say, their employer’s conduct made a very difficult situation even more stressful.

The biggest surprise I experienced during that case was their employer trying to argue that a miscarriage wasn’t pregnancy-related under the Equality Act 2010 because the employee wasn’t pregnant anymore. This is completely incorrect. Why?

Calls for Government to adopt German model of redundancy protection for pregnant employees

Baby Toy There has been a sizable amount of space afforded to pregnancy-related discrimination in the media this past year. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for this series of pregnancy-related blogs. As such, it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to escape accusations of pregnancy-related discrimination when it arises. This being said, there are charitable organisations out there that believe that more needs to be done: one of these charities is Maternity Action.

During the past week, Maternity Action have released a report (named “Unfair Redundancies”) calling on the Government to strengthen anti-redundancy protection for pregnancy employees. The most eye-catching statistics quoted by the charity include that 1 in every twenty mothers are made redundant during their pregnancy, maternity leave or return to work and that 77% of pregnant women felt discriminated against during their period of pregnancy.

Before we continue, let’s just dial down into that first statistic for a moment.

“Our Line Manager has made discriminatory comments to a pregnant employee?”

Baby's crib with teddy“Our Line Manager, Rosemary, has made discriminatory comments about a pregnant member of staff, Thyme. Her comments include stating that Thyme “has baby on the brain” and has a “poor attitude”. Thyme has complained to the HR Director and is demanding action. What can we do and what could we be facing?”

Thankfully, the above scenario is hypothetical and not a client email. However, some managers do fall into the trap of making discriminatory comments against pregnant staff members and, in doing so, place their employers at risk.

As most employers are aware, pregnant workers obtain advanced protection from detriment under employment law. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t entirely prevent genuine concerns about an employee’s conduct and/or performance being formally investigated as long as they have nothing to do with their pregnancy. Unfortunately, in this case, the line manager’s comments appear to be entirely influenced by the Rosemary’s pregnancy and that is a big risk for the employer.