Traditionally, New Year is when we think about what we achieved last year and resolve to do better next year. I find that this brings clients into my law practice with new ideas.

One client raised an interesting problem. This client – let’s call him Pete – owns a service business. We’ll call him a plumber, although that is not what he does. The main work for his staff involves working at homes and businesses of his customers.

In December Pete had a customer complaint. One of his staff, Bronwyn, had turned up at a job in unsuitable clothes.

Pete said it was “like wearing a pro-abortion T-shirt at a nunnery”.

The customer said she arrived in a T-shirt with a slogan on it. He had no idea who she was and claimed he thought she was a protester. He had been offended at her clothing and said others were too.

Pete was upset but also worried. He had patched up the problem but had also decided the real answer was that his business needed a corporate identity. He decided his first step would be a staff uniform, for which he planned T-shirts with the business logo on them and name badges for all staff to prove their identity.

But when he told his staff about this, some of them objected. Some argued that full name badges were an invasion of their privacy. One said that they had heard that they were illegal, and another claimed that T-shirts were not safe clothing as they did not offer enough protection. Bronwyn also said that she was entitled to her beliefs and that she was being discriminated against if she could not express them.

So Pete came to see me. I told him employees must comply with all lawful and reasonable instructions issued by their employers. Generally this means that an employer can require employees to wear a uniform, provided it is suitable for the job.

However, Pete’s idea of T-shirts might not be the answer if T-shirts were not suitable protective clothing. Pete has to comply with the health and safety legislation, whether he supplies the clothing or just sets the standards. I suggested that he rethink the type of uniform.

Next we discussed name badges. Pete wanted the plumbers to wear pin-on identity badges including their full names. An employer can insist that an employee displays their full name, provided it is safe for the employee to do so.

For example, if showing the full name might mean that someone could trace the employee outside work and harass them, that would not be safe. This is probably not an issue for Pete’s staff.

Pete decided to have badges with Christian names only but also to issue employees with photo ID cards with their full names on them. They would carry these cards at work and display them upon request.

As for the type of badges, pins could be dangerous, if the badges could snag or fall off into the work. Pete has chosen embroidered badges sewn on to uniforms.

That left Bronwyn. Under the Human Rights Act, an employer must not treat one employee differently from another because of the ethical beliefs of one of them. So Pete can have a rule that no employees are to wear T-shirts with non-work related slogans or wording on them, but the rule must apply to all. He cannot single out Bronwyn for different treatment.

I saw one of Pete’s staff last week. I’m not sure I would have picked bright orange with “Pete’s Perfect Plumbers” on it, but I suppose that’s marketing, not the law.

By Penelope Ryder-Lewis, first published in The Dominion Post

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