Wearing religious symbols at work

Putting employees under pressure to dress in a particular way could amount to religious discrimination if employers are too restrictive. The trick is to find a balance between allowing employees the freedom to express themselves and the competing rights and interests of other employees.

In a landmark European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision concerning Mrs Eweida and British Airways, the ECHR held that Mrs Eweida had been discriminated against by not being allowed to express her religion at work by visibly wearing a small silver cross with her uniform. The ECHR found that by BA preventing her from wearing her cross, too much importance had been given to BA's wish to project a certain corporate image compared with Ms Eweida's desire to manifest her religious belief and communicate that belief to others.

However, in the same case, the ECHR held it was acceptable not to allow Mrs Chaplin, a nurse, to wear a religious cross on a geriatrics ward where she worked. She was asked to remove her cross for health and safety reasons, which the ECHR held were inherently of much greater importance than her right to express her religion. A fair balance had to be struck.

Employers still have a relatively wide discretion to allow or not allow employees to express themselves freely. In practice, employers should exercise caution and only impose strict bans on crosses or other religious items being worn, such as wristbands or rings, if absolutely necessary to protect the competing rights or interests of other employees or service users, particularly in the realms of discrimination or health and safety.

Parental leave

From March 2013, unpaid parental leave will increase from 13 weeks to 18 weeks and from 2015 in respect of all children aged 18 and under.

New cap for unfair dismissal claims

When claiming compensation for unfair dismissal, an employee can currently claim up to the statutory cap of £74,200. However, from the Summer of 2013, the maximum award will be the lesser of one year's pay and the statutory limit.

This is good news for employers whose staff earn significantly less than £74,200. Such employees are unlikely to bring unfair dismissal claims, given that the legal fees they incur in bringing the claim are unlikely to be recoverable from the losing party. There is still no cap on claims for discrimination and whistleblowing and we expect to see an increase in these claims, whether they have merit or not.

Flexible working

By 2014, the government aims to implement plans to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment. The requirement to be a parent or carer will be removed. Employers will be required to consider requests in a reasonable manner, within a reasonable period of time. Employees will still be limited to one request in any 12-month period. A statutory code of practice and a best practice guide, setting out what a reasonable process requires, will be the subject of a future ACAS consultation. Guidance will also be provided to employers on how to handle simultaneous requests from different employees. Tribunals will be required to take the code into account when considering complaints.

The consultation sought views on whether businesses with fewer than 10 employees should be exempt. This was rejected, primarily because the EU Parental Leave Directive requires all businesses, regardless of size, to give parents returning from a period of parental leave the right to request flexible working.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.