After a woman wearing a headscarf, tunic and leggings while sitting on a beach in France was asked to remove her layers, questions about wearing hijabs and other religious symbols in public are flying. What do you need to know for the workplace?
Earlier this month, some French resort towns caused controversy after banning burkinis, a full-body swimsuit with a head covering that’s usually worn by Muslim women. A French high court has since lifted the ban, but not before it sparked international outrage and debate about enforcement of secular dress and wearing religious symbols.
Although it’s unlikely any employee outside an aquatic facility or beach will show up to work in a burkini, all workplaces need to know how to address religious symbols and dress in the workplace, says Hannah Ellis, principal at The Workplace Employment Lawyers in Sydney.
Some companies are including religious wear options as part of corporate dress codes. Westpac recently announced it will create hijabs to correspond with uniforms employees wear. The line is set to be released in April 2017, and will feature the company’s colours and logo.
It’s all part of a push to ensure diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace, says a bank spokeswoman. “This is another way we can show our support for our people and ensure they feel great at work,” she says.
Other organisations that have made similar decisions include Optus and Commonwealth Bank, which, after nearly a year of consultation with employees, introduced a grey hijab with the company’s logo as part of its uniform, according to the Financial Review.
The initiative was spearheaded by executive manager Malini Raj, who says the move reflects CBA’s pride in having employees and customers from a variety of cultures.
“We have a lot of Muslim employees and our customers are very diverse, so it’s important to make them feel supported and included,” she tells the Financial Review. The feedback from staff has been nothing but positive, she continues.
How workplaces should respond
Hijabs are one of the most recognisable and visible religious symbols, but jewellery, other headwear like yamakas or turbins, tattoos and beards can fall into this category.
In addition to state and federal anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Work Act prevents any workplace from discriminating against an employee on religious grounds, Ellis says.
It’s hard to account for each symbol specifically in a company dress code, she adds, but human resources professionals need to be prepared to make exceptions when appropriate. “Employers can’t outright tell an employee they can’t wear a hijab or other religious symbol,” she says.
What employers can ask is that any religious symbols comply with expectations of the role and other compliance factors, such as workplace health and safety. For example, if a man has a beard for religious reasons but he works in a kitchen, it’s not unreasonable for the employer to mandate they wear a hairnet. Or if a woman who works in a factory wears a hijab, employers can request that loose ends be pinned back to prevent interference with machinery.
Most of the hypothetical and real case studies boil down to the ‘reasonable person’ legal standard. Ellis suggests that employers avoid blanket bans, and be open to requests from employees for accommodations.
If an employee voices concerns about co-workers expressing religious affiliation in the workplace, Ellis suggests human resources take the lead and facilitate conversations about why some might feel uncomfortable. “Education is very important in addressing employee grievances that might not be ‘reasonable’ in the eyes of the law.
“I think the approach Westpac and those other companies are taking is the best way to do it,” Ellis continues. “It was collaborative, they consulted with employees about what their needs were, and because of that they received employee buy-in.”