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Dress codes can be a minefield for employers as the Dorchester Hotel proved last year with its insistence on a specific dress code. This year, the issue of religious dress has reared its head again.

Employers are entitled to ban workers from wearing Islamic headscarves or any other “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign”, Europe’s highest court has ruled.

However, in Europe, the court ruled that ban does not constitute “direct discrimination” if it is based on internal company rules that apply to all employees and require them to “dress neutrally”. The Court of Justice said: “It cannot be based on the wishes of a customer.”​

The wearing of religious symbols such as Islamic headscarves has become a sensitive and controversial topic.

Belgium’s court of cassation had referred the case to Europe’s highest court for clarification. The ruling – the first on the issue of Islamic headscarves at work – was prompted by a case dating to 2003 of a Muslim receptionist, Samira Achbita, who was fired for wearing a headscarf.

​At the time the company had an “unwritten rule” that employees should not wear any political, religious or philosophical symbols at work.

Achbita claimed that she was being discriminated against on the ground of her religion. However, the company subsequently introduced a formal ban and amended workplace regulations to forbid employees “from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs”.

The court ruled that the company’s rule covered “any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction”, and was therefore not discriminatory. It ruled that “an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate”. But the judges went on to say that national courts must make sure this policy of neutrality is applied equally to all employees.

The main point coming out of this ruling for employers is that as long as they apply their dress code policies neutrally and fairly then they will not be in breach of discrimination law.

As long as employees ban all religious symbols – headscarves and crucifixes, for example – then they should be all right. Employers must not differentiate between religious or political beliefs.

If any issue arises over this in the workplace we would recommend that the employer uses a professional mediator to try to sort out the problem before it escalates.