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.

A bitter feud played out in the High Court

Embed from Getty ImagesOver the last few weeks the High Court has heard some astonishing evidence in the bitter wrongful dismissal claim brought by the former CEO of Signia, a wealth management company, as reported in The Independent.

High profile entrepreneur John Caudwell has frequently made the news over the last couple of decades. The founder of mobile phones retailer Phones 4U has presented himself as a forthright, no-nonsense style of businessman. According to the website Caudwell.com (owned, registered and administered by one John D Caudwell and which is currently “down for maintenance”) he is a “successful entrepreneur and philanthropist” who “built an immensely successful mobile telecoms company”.

Signia is a wealth management company that was jointly founded by Nathalie Dauriac and six of her Coutts Bank colleagues in 2010. Another co-founder was Mr Caudwell. The business focuses on high end wealth management. All appeared to be well until details emerged of an extraordinary dispute between Ms Dauriac and Mr Caudwell, ostensibly in connection with expenses claims amounting to some £33,000. Ms Dauriac claimed that the expenses investigation was unfair and was, in effect, trumped up to deprive her of her £12 million 49% stake in the business, which was bought out for a nominal £2.00 fee.

Giving evidence in the High Court trial Ms Dauriac says that when they set up the business in 2010, “Mr Caudwell had asked me…as a last minute condition of jointly setting up the business, to give an undertaking to him not to have children, a proposal I did not agree to”.

Ms Dauriac claimed in evidence that Mr Caudwell orchestrated an “elaborate conspiracy” against her, resulting in her claim of constructive dismissal.

For its part, Signia maintained that she wrongfully claimed the expenses, that her approach to them was “brazen” and that she was “guilty of gross misconduct”.

In his evidence, Mr Caudwell said that the breakdown of his business relationship with Ms Dauriac, who he considered to be a “best friend” was like suffering a “bereavement”:

Can an employee be dismissed for supporting a certain sports team?

A few weeks ago, I went to the Belgium Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had a race-long battle which, for the most part, revealed a fairly even mix of Ferrari and Mercedes fans in the crowd. Hamilton won and was cheered onto the podium. At the next Grand Prix, in Italy, Hamilton won again. This time he was booed on the podium due to the vast number of Ferrari fans at the event. And, this last weekend, at the Singapore Grand Prix, the Ferrari cars were lambasted for crashing into each other and Hamilton took another (cheered) victory.

Why am I telling you this? Well, depending on which race you went to, your status as a Ferrari or Mercedes F1 fan would get a different reception and, weirdly, this can be the same with different workplaces.

Football is the obvious starting point here. If I worked in Manchester and declared myself to be a Liverpool FC fan on the first day by walking into the office with a Liverpool FC scarf, I’d be unlikely to make friendly quickly. In comparison, I’d most likely get a warmer reception if I did so in our Canter Levin & Berg office in the city centre (albeit there is a sizeable Everton-supporting community here too!)

But, surely, even if that is the case, the title of this blog is a daft question? In this age of publicised Employment Tribunal claims and employment law protection, surely an employer can’t take the ultimate act of dismissing someone just because they support a certain football team or Formula One team?

123 days to go: Is it time to start thinking about Christmas?

I love Christmas! Absolutely, utterly love it. As my friends and family will tell you, I’m the guy with the Christmas countdown app on my iPhone, the colleague who hangs obscene amounts of tinsel and Christmas paraphernalia around my desk and, every year in September, start googling Christmas Market trips in Europe (last year was Brussels, which is highly recommended!)

Surprisingly, however, it isn’t the quirky number of 123 days to go which has prompted this blog. Rather, it was a recent news article on the BBC News website entitled “Forget summer, it’s time to preare for Christmas” – a link can be found here. The article is mostly about employers preparing their product range for Christmas but, from an employment law perspective, it made me think about the ways in which businesses also need to manage personnel and policies to ensure an effective, stress-free Christmas period.

I’d be missing a clear open goal if I didn’t use Santa as my example employer here. So, here we go, let’s get some pre-planning in place to get Santa ready for Christmas!

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.