Wearing a Hijab Could Cost You Your Job

Every so often, the media draws attention to the inherent conflict between an employee’s freedom of expression and an employer’s right to conduct business as they see fit.  Most recently, a former employee of Abercrombie and Fitch has claimed that she was fired after refusing to remove her Muslim headscarf.
When Hani Khan was hired as a stockroom employee, she was told by her manager that she could wear her hijab, so long as it was in company colours.  Four months later, she was asked to remove it and lost her job when she refused.
This is the latest lawsuit faced by the retail giant.  Others include discriminatory hiring practices and the dismissal of an employee with a prosthetic arm.
What appears to be at the root of these complaints is Abercrombie’s controversial “Look Policy”, which outlines stringent criteria for the physical appearance of employees in order that they might represent the “Abercrombie look”.  Employees are scrutinized for things like hairstyle, facial hair, tattoos and use of make-up (all of which are not prohibited grounds of discrimination).  Because Khan’s hijab is related to a prohibited ground of discrimination (religion), she would be protected by human rights legislation.
Putting legislation aside, Abercrombie still faces the procedural problem of having accepted Khan’s wearing of the hijab at the time of her hiring, and later changing their mind.
Abercrombie will have to evaluate whether the benefits of strict adherence to their “look policy” outweighs the damage that is being done to their reputation.  If they decide to continue unaffected, managers should be well-trained on the criteria for which they can and cannot hire and fire employees.  Knowing the difference between freedom of expression and freedom of religion is worth the while, as the courts will accept the former and not the latter as being within the employers’ purview.