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The Law & Company Uniforms When It Comes To Religion

We are in a respectful, multicultural and non-discriminatory age. Everyone is expected to be kinder to each other, and those that refuse to be, are taken to task by the law.

This is no bad thing - we are moving towards a better world with a brighter future - but whenever the law has to step in, we can find ourselves in a whole quagmire of legislation. Choosing a company uniform should be simple, but you would be wise to check the law in terms of religious expression.

This should help to minimise the risk to your business.

The Law - With Examples

In short, an employer can not create a compulsory uniform policy which unfairly hinders expression of an employee's religion or beliefs. You cannot directly or indirectly discriminate against anybody's religious expression.

If observing the religious practice impacts on the person's ability to perform their job or on anybody's health and safety, then, legally a person cannot demand exemption from the rules.

The Equality Act 2010 lists Religion as one of the characteristics which is protected from discrimination, under law, in the United Kingdom.

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy & maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and/or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Complications arise when there is no precise answer as to what constitutes discrimination of a person's religious belief.

For example, issuing a uniform which has a crucifix on the chest would clearly discriminate against all non-Christians.

But the waters become muddy when an Atheist is not allowed to wear jewellery with their uniform at the same time that a Christian can wear a crucifix necklace.

Likewise, the employment of people practising a faith with overt dress code requirements (e.g. Rastafarianism, Sikhism or some areas of Islam) can cause difficulties.

This is because businesses run the risk of creating indirect discrimination. This happens when a uniform policy negatively impacts one employee compared to another.

The case of Eweida and others v United Kingdom [2013] IRLR 231 ECHR (pdf) arose from a Christian worker having to keep religious items hidden. It was ruled that employee and employer had not struck "a fair balance" between the desire to express religious beliefs and the employer wishing to manage a corporate image.

The case resulted in the employer permitting open wearing of religious jewellery.

The wearing of faith-denoting jewellery is not a requirement of being a Christian, but it is a very common act which fits into their belief of spreading their word. Other religions, however, do prescribe actions which impact how a person must dress.

Rosary Bracelet

Rosary bracelets are sometimes worn by Catholics, but are also often a fashion item. Yet more evidence of what a legal grey area this is.

In the case of employing persons who this applies to - Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs - it is advised that you build some flexibility into your uniform policy and allow certain optional accessories.

For more contentious items, notably the full veil worn by some Muslim women, the famous case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan BC is worth noting.

Azmi was working as a teaching assistant. She was not permitted to wear her face cover (Niqab) when working with a male teacher, which was her religious desire.

Her case was ultimately unsuccessful due to the fact that facial expression and engagement was key when working with the children, and Kirklees Council had tried to find other solutions to the issue.

This shows that if a religious belief impacts on performance or health and safety, then, legally, a person cannot demand exemption from the company rules.

When looking for further legal precedent as advice, a lot can be learned from Department for Work and Pensions v Thompson [2003] at the Court of Appeal EAT which concerns another area of the Equality Act's protected characteristics - Sex.

Thompson had previously won compensation that his employer's uniform policy discriminated against men.

The policy stated that Job Centre Plus employees should dress "in a professional and business-like way". It specifically prescribed men to wear a shirt and tie, but it was subjective in regards to women, stating they were "to dress appropriately and to a similar standard".

Thompson (and over 6,000 male colleagues from around the country) had resented the fact that women were permitted to wear less formal clothing around the office.

But DWP overturned Thompson's win on the grounds that the policy clearly expected both sexes to dress "in a professional and business-like way". The policy was due to be enforced at a local level by middle management - it was not the policy maker's fault if this was not happening in certain Job Centre Plus offices.

Which leads us to where you should go from here.

Dialogue and compromise will solve most problems.

First and foremost, speak to any employees who might be affected by a change in uniform policy in regards to their religious beliefs.

The likelihood is that, if you already employ them and have not had any issues regarding what is/is not being worn around the office, consultation about the upcoming policy change will nip any potential issues in the bud.

Furthermore, you can always include manager discretion within your policy and ask that employees consult their senior colleagues for what is and is not acceptable.

The main thing is top not dive head long into a Uniform policy and refuse to bend in any direction. This will only end in tears.

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