Media reports have regaled the tale of a prospective wedding couple being shunned from Stoke Park Hotel, a fairytale location that most brides would dream of, for not being the "type of people" that they wished to play host to.
The couple have surmised that this was because the groom did not present the right image at their meeting with the hotel's wedding planner as he sported piercings in both his ears and his eyebrow. They had indicated that they were pursuing a discrimination claim as a result of their treatment which they discovered after the wedding planner inadvertently copied in the bride and groom to an e-mail to her manager (a lesson in itself to always check who the message is being sent to before hitting the "send" button!). There was also a significant age gap between the couple with the bride-to-be being 24 years her fiancé's junior.
Although this case relates to a service that the hotel was to provide rather than an employment relationship, the principles are similar. All discrimination laws were wrapped up into one piece of legislation called the Equality Act 2010 (EqA2010). It follows therefore that any claim they may have under the EqA2010 could have an impact on discrimination within an employment setting.
So, on what grounds are the engaged couple pursuing their discrimination claim? The EqA2010 sets out a list of "protected characteristics" which includes age, race, sex and disability to name a few. However, what is not included in that list is "image". An employer is therefore free to discriminate against a person due to his/her image, provided their image is not linked to one of the protected characteristics listed in the EqA2010. For example to discriminate against a Muslim woman for wearing a burqa is highly likely to be discriminatory on the grounds of race and/or religion. However, discrimination against people with eyebrow piercings does not possess any such links to a protected characteristic. Notably, body piercings are specifically excluded as being capable of amounting to a disability, as are tattoos.
Discrimination on the grounds of age is a protected characteristic. It has been suggested that the hotel may have taken exception to the age gap between the engaged couple. If this was the reason for their treatment, whilst the hotel may prefer their marrying couples to be of the same generation, their ages taken individually don't appear to be the issue, rather the number of years between the two of them. Whilst it is discriminatory for a person to treat another person less favourably because of their age, it is likely that the hotel could easily demonstrate that they have catered for past clients intending to wed aged around 27 or those intending to wed aged 51. So, is the hotel absolved of all liability? Well, the EqA2010 introduced the concept of discrimination by association. Therefore, it is possible that each could argue that they have received less favourable treatment due to the age of the other with whom they are associated. There is no case law on this point at present but it seems likely that the associative discrimination provisions could cover this eventuality, assuming they can prove the age gap was the reason for their treatment and not their appearance. We are somewhat unconvinced that this was in fact the deal breaker as opposed to their less than perfect appearance and "message" that it gave out. Had Tom Cruise and Katie Homes, a former high profile celebrity couple with an age gap wished to tie the knot at Stoke Park we are not sure that they would have been refused! In any event, in running both arguments they may well have undermined their own case.
What do we make of potentially taking disciplinary action against the wedding planner? Whilst many of you may be shouting "she got what she deserved", what if the employee had been working under the instructions of her line manager? Perhaps there was a custom and practice of turfing out the riff raff! That being the case, it may then become unreasonable for the employer to discipline the employee for trying to follow the hotel's instructions to attract and deal with only the most upper class of clientele. If this was not the case, then disciplinary action for sending such an e-mail and bringing the company into disrepute could be a possibility. For now, turning away potential customers (and employees) for being too common does not appear to fall foul of any legislation.
This article has been written by Angela Gorton. Should you wish to receive further information on this or any other area of employment law, please do not hesitate to contact Angela Gorton on 0113 280 2026 firstname.lastname@example.org
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