Should female Muslim employees be allowed to wear a veil or headscarf if they wish to do so?

A rule that employees should not wear a veil or headscarf in the workplace will raise the potential for claims of indirect religion or belief discrimination. Such a rule could place female Muslim employees at a particular disadvantage as some Muslims believe that it is a requirement of their religion for women to cover their hair and/or face.

In Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council [2007] IRLR 484 EAT, the employer was held not to have unlawfully discriminated against Mrs Azmi, a teaching support worker, by refusing to allow her to wear a veil in the classroom. The employer had evidence that the children did not engage as well with Mrs Azmi when she was wearing her veil as when she was not, and that it therefore impacted on her effectiveness in the role. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that, although the refusal to allow the claimant to weir a veil amounted to indirect discrimination, it was justified in the circumstances.

However, employers should not assume that a ban on the wearing of veils or headscarves will be lawful in all cases. Where a tribunal finds that a clothing ban indirectly discriminates against employees on grounds of their religion or faith, it will examine the employer's evidence closely to see if the ban is justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Employers may find it difficult to justify discrimination on the ground that the wearing of a veil or headscarf does not fit the image that the company wishes to project. Evidence of a negative impact on the employee's performance or an increased health and safety risk are more likely to be accepted as grounds for justification.