The employee in Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions NV was a receptionist for G4S in Belgium. G4S supplies receptionists (as well as security services) to the private and public sectors. She was dismissed when, after three years in her job, she indicated that she would only work if she was allowed to attend the office wearing a headscarf. The dismissal was in line with G4S's prohibition on wearing visible religious, political or philosophical symbols.
She challenged the dismissal on grounds of discrimination because of her religion or belief and the Belgian court referred her case to the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ). The ECJ (in line with the Advocate-General's Opinion last year) has decided that there is no direct discrimination where the ban is part of a general prohibition on wearing symbols in the workplace.
The ECJ went on to find that the rule could potentially be indirectly discriminatory but this could be justified in order to enforce the employer's policy of religious and ideological neutrality in its relations with its customers, provided the ban was proportionate. This is an issue for the Belgian court but the ECJ offered some guidance:
• The ban must be applied consistently and be proportionate – it must go no further than strictly necessary to project the image of neutrality. If the ban applied only to G4S workers who interacted with customers, then it ought to be regarded as proportionate.
• However, the court should also consider whether it might have been possible (without imposing additional burdens on the employer) for the claimant to have been offered a post that did not involve visual customer contact.
In Bougnaoui v Micropole SA, following a complaint from a client, the employee, a design engineer, was asked not to wear her Islamic headscarf when visiting clients. She refused and was subsequently dismissed. It was unclear whether there was any company dress code. The ECJ decided that if there was an internal rule then the principles in Achbita would apply; but if not, the dismissal would be direct discrimination; a desire to comply with a customer's requirement not to have services provided by an employee wearing a headscarf could not be a "genuine and determining occupational requirement" – the justification relied on in the French court.
Achbita emphasises the importance of consistency and proportionality in dress code issues. It was also key that the ban covered all visible symbols, making it neutral from a religious perspective.