Author: Fadi Sfeir (Capstan)

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently issued two rulings, on 14 March 2017, regarding religion in the workplace, one a Belgian case, the other a French one. On 15 March 2017, we reported on the Belgian case in detail (see: European Court of Justice Rules for the first time on Discrimination Based on Belief). In what follows, we set out our reaction to the French case.

The issue of dresscode in the workplace is a hot topic in France, which is a very secular country, both politically and from a legal standpoint. According to the French Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law without any distinction as to religion.

In the matter brought before the ECJ by the French Court, the employee was an engineer in contact with clients. One client specifically complained about the employee wearing an Islamic headscarf. When she was taken on, she was specifically told by management that there would be times when she could not wear the headscarf, especially when in contact with clients.

The employer asked the employee to stop wearing the headscarf, in the interests of the company and based on its policy. The employee refused and was therefore dismissed.

The ECJ considered whether the fact that the employer was reacting to the wishes of a customer constituted a genuine and determining occupational requirement, so as to enable the employer to insist on its dress rules. The Court ruled that this was not a genuine and determining occupational requirement and that such a requirement would only be found in very limited circumstances.

The upshot is that French employers considering dresscode should take care to draft a written policy (preferably as part of the internal rules of the company) addressing the issue. They are encouraged to do so by recent legislation, enacted in August 2016, which provided for this option. If employers fail to do this, it is clear that it will be more difficult from them to justify asking someone not to wear religious dress in the workplace.