Catholic nurse unfairly dismissed over cross necklace

The Employment Tribunal has ruled that a Catholic nurse was constructively and unfairly dismissed after wearing a cross necklace to work.

The case involved Mary Onuoha, who had worked at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust for 19 years.

For the first 13 years, she wore the necklace with no issues. However, after 2014, Onuoha was regularly told to remove it.

She refused for religious reasons each time and didn’t receive any follow up requests.

During the later stages of her time at the trust, Onuoha was a surgical theatre practitioner. She was responsible for assisting with surgical procedures, providing post-operative care and in general, making sure the theatre ran smoothly.

In 2017, the trust’s uniform policy was criticised by the Care Quality Commission and general briefings were sent to all staff about uniform policy.

The trust told Onuoha that her necklace was a health and safety issue in the theatre. She was told that her jewellery was potentially a source of infection and that she mustn’t wear it at work.

There was also a concern that a Onuoha was at risk of chocking if a patient grabbed the necklace during surgery.

However, while the uniform policy did exist, it was rarely enforced and other employees who broke the policy were not disciplined by management.

Onuoha also said that for 70% of her time she worked as a ‘scrubbed-in nurse’ and wore surgical covering that concealed her from neck to wrist.

For the 30% of the time that she acted as a ‘circulating nurse’ her necklace was not concealed.

In 2018, the clinical lead practitioner demanded that she remove the necklace, but she refused.

As the situation escalated, the trust began a formal investigation into Onuoha’s refusal to remove her necklace. She responded by raising a grievance of race and religious discrimination.

Onuoha was moved to non-clinical work. A disciplinary meeting was held, and she received a final written warning.

While this was going on, Onuoha started to collect evidence of other employees who wore jewellery and religious clothing such as headscarves, turbans and kalava bracelets - many of whom were doctors, nurses and anaesthetists and worked in clinical areas.

Over the next year and a half, she was subjected to further investigations and disciplinary hearings.

It led to Onuoha being put on stress-related sick leave and she resigned.

She took legal action and the tribunal ruled in her favour. It held that the trust had provided no reasonable justification for stating that a religious necklace should be treated differently to religious headwear.

It was detrimental to her to be redeployed several times and, as this was due to her religious necklace, it was a discriminatory act.

Please contact us for more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of employment law.

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