What are the issues that religious clothing can create in the workplace?

Our Legal Experts at Baines Wilson have the answers...

Workers are protected under the Equality Act 2010 from religion or belief discrimination, harassment and victimisation. In particular, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate directly by treating a job applicant or worker less favourably because of their religion or belief, or to apply a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) that disadvantages job applicants or workers of a particular religion or belief without objective justification.

Workers often wish to wear certain clothing and/or accessories for religious reasons. In many cases this will not be an issue, but sometimes conflict arises with an employer’s dress code.

Begum v Pedagogy Auras UK Limited

Ms Begum is an observant Muslim whose religious belief requires her to wear a jilbab, a flowing garment that reaches from her neck to her ankles. She approached Pedagody, a nursery which provides day care for children, with a view to seeking an apprenticeship through an agency. She attended a half day trial at the nursery and performed well. She was then invited to an interview with the nursery’s managing director and was offered the apprenticeship.

Ms Begum wore a jilbab to both the trial and the interview. At the interview, the issue of uniform was discussed. Ms Begum was told that she needed to wear non slip footwear. When discussing this, the interviewer noticed that Ms Begum’s jilbab was covering her shoes and touching the floor.

This was considered to be a health and safety risk, and Ms Begum was asked whether she might wear a shorter jilbab to work. It was suggested that she could change into a longer jilbab after work if she wished to do so, or even wear trousers underneath, as was the case with other Muslim women working at the nursery. Ms Begum said that she would discuss it with her family.

The discussion did not reach a conclusion and she did not indicate to the nursery that she was offended by the suggestion. The nursery expected Ms Begum to let them know what she had decided to do and then to start work. However, Ms Begum did not contact the nursery again. Rather she reported to the agency that she had been insulted by the discussion; that the nursery’s policies were against her morals and beliefs and that she refused to accept the job.

She brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and asserted that the requirement not to wear a full length jilbab was a PCP which was indirectly discriminatory against Muslim women and could not be justified. She alleged that she had been told by the interviewer that she could not work at the nursery if she were dressed as she was. The nursery refuted this and maintained that the interviewer only ever told her that garments must not present a tripping hazard.

The Employment Tribunal had been satisfied that the rationale behind the interviewer’s questions was in relation to the nursery’s health and safety obligations. The Tribunal commented that the managing director was acutely aware of her health and safety responsibilities; she continually monitored staff for length of fingernails, inappropriate jewellery and clothes which could be hazardous and this was a work environment where health and safety was a live issue for management and staff alike.

The Employment Tribunal found that the nursery’s practice did not put Muslim women at a disadvantage as they were still able to wear a jilbab as long as it did not represent a trip hazard. Other Muslim women employed by the nursery had the same health and safety assessment made of their clothing and wore a variety of types of clothing that were in keeping with their religion. As such, it found that Ms Begum had failed to make a case that the nursery applied a PCP to her which disadvantaged Muslim women.

The Employment Tribunal went on to say that if it was wrong and the PCP did disadvantage Muslim women and Ms Begum, it was nevertheless a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of safeguarding the health and safety of staff and children. Ms Begum appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) on a number of grounds, one of which being that the Employment Tribunal’s findings were perverse and its reasons inadequate.


The EAT upheld the Tribunal’s decision. The Tribunal had been entitled to reach the conclusions it had done on the evidence; there had been nothing perverse about its decision and it had given adequate reasons for it.

The Employment Tribunal was entitled to conclude that the PCP did not have a discriminatory effect, and noted that an apparently amicable discussion about the length of clothing had taken place at the interview.


There is no “one size fits all” approach to conflicts between religious observance and dress codes and each case turns on its facts. The nursery in the case above was a workplace where other Muslim women wore religious clothing at work, including at least one who wore an ankle length jilbab. This influenced the Tribunal’s approach to the case.

Employers need to consider whether dress codes may be discriminatory and, if they might, whether they can be objectively justified by trying to achieve a legitimate aim and being a proportionate way to do so. This will include ensuring that there are no less discriminatory alternatives available to the employer.

If you have any queries relating to discrimination, policies and procedures, recruitment or if you have any other Employment Law or HR queries please contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.