Written Tuesday 17th August 2021

Religious clothing in the workplace

Religion or belief is a protected characteristic, as laid out by the Equality Act 2010. This means that it’s illegal to discriminate against an employee because of their religion or belief – or lack thereof. 

Expression of religion or belief can often involve wearing specific items of clothing or jewellery. Whether it’s a crucifix, a hijab, a kara, or dressing modestly (to name just a few examples), some employees or colleagues may wish to physically display their religious beliefs in the working environment, or they may be required to according to their faith. 

In fact, with over 80% of the world claiming to be affiliated with religion in some way, you’ll likely be working with, or employing, someone who may communicate their beliefs through how they dress. 

Religion and dress codes

Questions about this may arise when a workplace needs or desires to implement a dress code. For example, some offices may expect teams to dress smartly, or wear a uniform. Dress codes such as this must not discriminate against employees with or without beliefs, both directly or indirectly. 

This doesn’t mean that a dress code can’t be changed for an individual, however: “It is not unlawful direct discrimination to treat people differently if their situations are different,” the Equality and Human Rights Commission explains. “For example, an employer agrees to a change in a uniform policy for a religious employee because otherwise they would be indirectly discriminating against that employee because of their religion.”

Dress codes are sometimes unavoidable; but for a workplace to be truly inclusive, they need to be considerate of everyone’s needs.

Inclusivity and religious dress

Many companies have successfully adapted over the years to ensure their entire working community feels welcome and included, embracing colleagues’ needs to express their beliefs as they work. But, as always, not everyone is making the effort. 

Religious inclusivity doesn’t seem to be a priority for all. In 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that “the majority of Fortune 100 companies fail to mention faith or religion as part of diversity efforts,” adding: “racial diversity, for example, is mentioned multiple times on 95% of landing pages for a total of more than 1,000 mentions. Religion is mentioned 92 times, across only 43% of the pages, putting it at the very bottom of the diversity and inclusion scale.”

There’s also evidence that religious dress can cause issues before someone even starts their job, as seen in this 2019 article: “Research has found that although Muslim women who visit mosques are more likely to be employed, those wearing the hijab are less likely to have a job. This indicates that underemployment is more likely to be down to discrimination than anything to do with Islam itself.”

Just as companies can judge job applicants on their gender, age or sexuality, they can also make assumptions if their religious beliefs are manifested through the way they are dressed. 

Some companies have been found guilty of religious discrimination like this in the past, like US brand Abercrombie & Fitch in 2015, when the US Supreme Court upheld a Muslim applicant’s claim against them. The company had rejected her job application because she ‘wore a headscarf’, and argued the clothing did not align with their ‘style’. They have since revised their guidance against the wearing of ‘caps’. In another case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that a claimant’s human rights had been breached because she was not permitted to wear a Christian cross at work.

There is still a problem, and a stigma, surrounding the wearing of religious attire in the workplace; and it gets complicated when expressions of belief (or not) may conflict with the organisation’s processes or values, or the beliefs of colleagues. Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Michael Smets, and Tim Morris explored this in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in late 2020: 

“Once the range of beliefs of a diverse workforce become more public, employees may disagree with each other about them. Expressions of belief may also conflict with the requirements of the business, forcing employers to walk a fine line between non-discrimination on religious grounds, service to the customer, and fair treatment of all employees.

“These concerns are compounded in organizations that are explicitly religious (such as the Salvation Army) and in others whose founders’ religious principles inform the company’s values and practices (such as Chick-fil-A). While some employees share the beliefs at the heart of these organizations, those that do not can feel excluded or discriminated against.”

Sparking discussion and acceptance

There is still much to be done when it comes to true inclusivity at work in terms of religious dress. While it can spark complications, adopting an open approach to these types of expression of belief comes with great benefits, too.

Although, as we’ve already mentioned, it could incite disagreement or conflict, exposing colleagues to alternative views or beliefs can be educational, positive, and hugely influential. Tasneem Afridi wrote about her experiences as a Muslim woman in the workplace for Refinery29 in 2017, where she shared her thoughts on the positives of wearing a hijab at work, and the fine line between discussion and discrimination:

“Considering the amount of time I spend with my colleagues, it’s natural that we should talk about our personal lives, and I want to help educate my peers about my faith. These discussions are crucial, especially considering the omnipresent machine of fearmongering that controls the narratives about Muslims. 

“It’s nice to be able to speak for myself and educate people in my life. But it’s not appropriate to single people out because of their background, especially in a professional setting.”

Being open to adapting to people’s religious needs can be more beneficial than adhering to strict guidelines, and flexibility could also be the best direction to take. The aforementioned article by Aslan Gümüsay, Smets, and Morris for the HBR recounts a study they conducted of KT Bank, the first Islamic bank in Germany. They found that being flexible and even ambiguous when it comes to religion in the workplace can help stakeholders to embrace opposing views, navigate commitments and ultimately “find unity in diversity”.

“The bank’s leadership was not aiming to hide anything with this vagueness, but rather to be open to being multiple things to multiple people at the same time,” they wrote.

“This flexible approach, which recognizes and includes diverse beliefs, allows individual staff to choose their own level of religious intensity and balance it with the demands of the organization in a dynamic way.

“From what we’ve seen, in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and paradox, it may be advantageous for an organization to mirror the characteristics demonstrated by KT Bank. A perfectly aligned organization with clarity and focus at every level may not be as adaptable as organizations that make room for, and even celebrate, ambiguity.”

There are even positive news stories proving that uniforms or workwear can be adapted to include those who wear specific religious dress. For example, although uniforms in healthcare can be somewhat limiting, progress is being made in the world of PPE, with one business creating the UK’s first range of multicultural PPE headwear. This is proof that, even with some requirements, adaptations can be made to include everyone.

Company values 

So what about the steps we can take within our teams and organisations to encourage more inclusivity when it comes to religious dress?

The decisions companies make when it comes to what their employees can and can’t wear can say a lot about their values, especially when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusivity. Just as any dress code is supposed to offer an insight into what the company is all about, the guidance provided when it comes to expressing religion or belief through clothing will speak volumes, too.

The main thing is to ensure you are not discriminating against anyone with or without a belief; but there are other things you could do, too. Actively encourage and support expression of belief through dress as you would through allowing time for prayer, or time off for religious holidays; ensure recruitment processes are blind to religious dress, as they would be to other protected characteristics; or perhaps you could offer supportive spaces such as faith groups within the staff community (just like Apple, The Bank of England and The Civil Service). 

It seems that a more flexible or even vague approach to religion in the workplace, as demonstrated by KT Bank, could be the way forward; after all, for employees to be at their very best in the workplace, they should feel able to be their true selves, whatever they believe and however they express their faith.