Religious clothing is no longer acceptable at work and you’d pretty much be resigning yourself to being issued with a P45 if you continuously choose to pitch up at work in a skirt that barely covers your thighs and an emblazoned t-shirt expressing your political views. It’s no longer cool or legal, it appears to express yourself by choosing risky or religious clothing to work.

Last week a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling found that two employees who were dismissed for wearing Islamic headscarves did not suffer discrimination. This landmark ruling paves the way for employers to ban religious clothing as long as it forms part of a dress code that requires staff to dress ‘neutrally’.

The case centred upon two employees in Belgium and France who brought the case to the ECJ after being dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves, which did not cover the face. The ECJ ruled that asking employees to remove such items does not constitute direct discrimination, if a general ban on such symbols is imposed. In a note of caution to employers, however, the judgment makes it clear that if the ban is only applied to certain religious groups, Muslim members of staff for example, that may constitute direct discrimination.

A further twist in the ruling means that any ban on wearing certain clothes must be based upon internal rules requiring all employees to “dress neutrally” and cannot be based on the wishes of a customer.

It’s an area of compliance that really requires some thought for employers, getting it wrong may mean winding up in a tribunal court. It’s an interesting ruling because “dressing neutrally” depends upon the culture of the company. If you work at Google, it may be perfectly acceptable to turn up in a pair of shorts and a scruffy t-shirt but if your job is at a city law firm for example, that would clearly not be acceptable.

Clothing really is an important part of our working culture and research does suggest that clothes not only are a form of expression of who we are and what we value but they also heavily impact other people’s perceptions of our financial success, our authority, intelligence and suitability for everything from promotion to acceptance. When you stand back from it, it does seem entirely daft that clothes can play such an important role in our success at work. It’s rather sad really, that people aren’t judged on the work they produce, their productivity and their ability to build good business relations. It’s a fact of life that people really do weigh us up, certainly on initial impressions on the clothes we have on our back and the shoes we choose to wear. Here’s a quick guide to keeping it neutral:

  • Don’t show too much flesh: unless you are a builder or a gardener it’s not appropriate to put too much skin on display. It can also offend other religions so keep the flesh covered if possible.
  • Don’t pick jewellery that is too flashy: jewellery is an area where you can express a little bit more about yourself. Think pinstripe suit and red necklace. You can get away with being quite bold but whilst you’re busy being whacky just consider if your taste in jewellery will win admiration or howls of laughter or worse scowls of disapproval.
  • Don’t wear clothes that are too tight: if you are busting (excuse the pun) out of your top then it’s probably best to leave that one for Saturday night. No one wants to see more than they’d bargained for.

As for the do’s – do wear clean clothes and do try to iron them. With the best will in the world your most expensive and conservative suit will look cheap and nasty if it has creases all over it and last night’s dinner down the front. Do add some colour but try not to steal the show in a luminous green or canary red number – no-one likes a show off. Finally, think what your mother would say if you were stepping out of the door. That’s always a good benchmark for whether an outfit is suitable for the corporate world or not!

Author: Annie Hayes