HR Expert: Face masks at work

A client has an employee who is insisting on wearing a mask in the office in light of the new development in France. Can the client dismiss the employee if they continue to refuse to follow the standard office dress code which doesn’t include a mask?

France has made the wearing of facemasks compulsory in workplaces since 10 August, to further combat the spread of the coronavirus. Questions have been raised as to whether this will, or should, also be introduced in the UK. After all, calls for their wider introduction are growing, with it already compulsory for them to be worn in retail environments.

Your client should note that there is currently no sign that such a requirement will become mandatory in UK workplaces such as offices. For now, unless the place of work does require forms of personal protective equipment (PPE), there is no legal requirement for staff to be asked to wear a mask in the office. It is therefore up to the client if they wish to enforce this.

In deciding if masks should be mandatory, it is advisable that the client to first address government guidance. They should carefully consider if masks are necessary, especially if the workplace is already following all other rules surrounding social distancing, or if the employee in question is particularly vulnerable and may feel more comfortable wearing one. As masks may make conversing with clients or customers difficult, especially if the office is predominantly based around talking on the phone or face-to-face, the client should consider only permitting the wearing of masks if the employee’s job will not be hindered by doing so.

Given the coronavirus situation, dismissing an employee on the basis of them wanting to wear a mask in the office may give rise to unfair dismissal claims.

To avoid a claim for unfair dismissal the client must have a potentially fair reason to dismiss, must have acted reasonably in treating this reason as sufficient to justify dismissal and followed a fair procedure. Common examples of unfair dismissal include dismissals when an employee acts on health and safety grounds.

Instead of dismissal, the client should think about communicating with the employee to first establish why they want to wear a mask, if there are any other measures that can be made instead, or come up with alternative working arrangements such as homeworking if possible. As the wearing of masks in the workplace is neither legal nor illegal, the client can choose to allow it if it does not hinder the employee’s work.

The client needs to be aware that if any new laws on wearing facemasks in the office are introduced in the UK, they may have to enforce it eventually, meaning it could therefore fast become part of an organisation’s dress code for the duration of the pandemic.

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