The latest discrimination case involving a Christian nurse who refused to remove her crucifix at work shows that employers are failing to exercise caution when implementing and enforcing dress codes at work, employment experts have warned.
Shirley Chaplin, 54, lost her case against Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital, after a tribunal ruled that it was reasonable to require her to take off her necklace bearing the Christian symbol for health and safety reasons.
The case follows that of Christian British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, who in February lost her appeal against a ruling that said the airline was not guilty of discrimination by stopping her wearing a cross at work.
Claire McCartney, organisation and resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), told Personnel Today: “Some employers have not learned the lessons [from the BA case].
“Employers need to think carefully about dress code policies, keeping them broad and flexible. If any changes need to be made they have to be clear and consult with different groups on issues such as religious wear.”
Nadia Omar, lawyer at Thomson Snell & Passmore, added that the Chaplin case once again highlighted the need for employers to treat matters of dress code carefully.
“Employers should consider the objectives of the dress code and ensure that it is applied consistently throughout the workplace,” she said.
“Employers may need to consult with protected groups under discrimination legislation on the impact of the policy.”
However, Omar added: “It is now clear that items worn as a personal preference rather than a religious symbol are not protected. This ruling should give employers confidence to enforce reasonable and justified dress codes.”
After the hearing Chaplin, who is to appeal against the judgment, said the result was “a very bad day for Christianity”.
She vowed not to remove the crucifix, adding that she was prepared to modify the chain with a magnetic clasp so that if a patient grabbed the chain – as feared by the trust – it would separate easily causing no harm. “I wouldn’t have gone this far if I was prepared to take it off,” she said.
But Ben Doherty, employment lawyer at Pinsent Masons, said success for Chaplin was unlikely in light of the decision in the Eweida vs BA case, in which the Court of Appeal made it clear that the wearing of a cross was a personal choice and not a religious requirement.