Sikh job hunter denied work because of ‘no beards’ policy wins religious discrimination case

Tribunal finds hospitality recruitment agency with ‘blanket’ facial hair ban had not consulted clients about making an exception

A Sikh job hunter who was denied work because of a recruitment agency’s ‘no beards’ policy has won a religious discrimination case and been awarded more than £7,000 in compensation.

A London employment tribunal heard hospitality recruitment agency Elements Personnel Services refused to offer work to Raman Sethi, who has a beard, because of certain grooming and dress code policies it said were held by some of its clients, including the Grosvenor House Hotel, the Connaught and Claridge’s. 

The tribunal heard Elements provides temporary staff for the hospitality industry, predominantly front of house food and beverage roles at five-star hotels. Sethi sought employment through the company in November 2017, but was not taken on because he said the agency’s policy banning facial hair precluded him from working for them. 

Sethi told the tribunal he is a practising Sikh and adheres strictly to Kesh: the requirement that “the hair of the body not be cut”. He said this belief is in common with other Sikhs. 

After making initial enquiries about employment with Elements, Sethi attended an induction and training session on 15 November 2017. Elements’ policies on various matters were explained at this session, and pictures were shown of the dress and appearance standard required for those working for the agency.

Sethi, along with other attendees at the training session, was asked to – and did – sign Elements’ standard contract for agency workers, which included a dress code that stated hair for men must be “neatly trimmed” and not fall lower than the top of the collar, with “no beards or goatees” allowed.

The Tribunal heard everyone present at the training session, including Sethi, was placed on Elements’ ‘books’ instead of being offered immediate employment. At this time, anyone who was on the agency’s books could access a jobs portal, where they were able to put themselves forward for particular roles. 

At the end of the session, Sethi said he approached Ms Kymberley Davies, Elements’ recruitment manager, to explain that he would not be able to shave his beard for religious reasons.

Davies emailed Sethi after the session to say she would confirm with managers in the morning about his beard and get back in touch with him. 

The next day, 16 November, Davies spoke with Sethi on the phone and sent a follow-up email saying she would “love to have enough shifts without food handling to make it worth your while to join us”. She suggested an alternative agency that might be able to help Sethi find work. 

Sethi responded the same day saying he would love to do shifts without food handling for the agency. Davies replied saying she thought Sethi had misunderstood. 

She wrote that as the firm worked with five-star hotels, managers “won’t allow having facial hair [because of] health and safety/hygiene reasons”, adding that if the company worked with hotels of lower star ratings, facial hair “wouldn’t be as big of an issue.”

She acknowledged Sethi’s beard was part of his religion, but that having no facial hair is “part of the five-star standards”.

Davies told the tribunal that client requirements were “entirely outside of our control” and generally workers were “sent home by the client” to either shave or change their appearance, otherwise they were not offered any further shifts.

Employment judge Holly Eileen Stout accepted that the agency may have felt pressure to apply a ‘no beards’ blanket policy, but ruled it was discriminatory as Elements could not produce evidence that it had asked its clients if they would accept a Sikh working for them who could not shave for religious reasons.

“The possibility of clients making an exception to their policy for Sikhs for religious reasons had not, on the evidence before us, been explored,” she said.

The tribunal awarded Sethi £7,102 in compensation for indirect religious discrimination, comprising £1,208 for loss of earnings and £5,000 for injury to feelings, plus interest.

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said the case sends a clear message to employers about how dress codes, or a policy focused on employees’ appearances, can present risks if not carefully implemented. “While it is perfectly fine to expect a certain level of dress from staff within company policy, particularly in client-facing roles, care must be taken to evaluate if a particular requirement such as prohibiting beards could be discriminatory,” Willis said.

“As seen here, the fact that the agency failed to consider how their policy indirectly discriminated against those from the Sikh faith and were unable to justify this requirement, ultimately went against them at a tribunal.”

Sethi told the tribunal he had subsequently experienced a number of incidents where he had been refused work in the hospitality sector because of his beard and/or turban. In his statement to the tribunal, he said his experience with Elements had “affected him deeply” and felt strongly that “there should be equal rights for everyone”.

Elements could not be reached for comment.