Cross necklace resulted in unfair dismissal

A Catholic nurse who was bullied out of her job for wearing a cross around her neck at work was unfairly dismissed by the hospital where she had worked for 18 years, an employment tribunal has ruled.

NHS theatre practitioner Mary Onuoha claimed that she had faced a ‘campaign of harassment’ at Croydon University Hospital to make her remove the small gold cross.

A tribunal found that although the hospital claimed there were health and safety policies behind their demand, this was inconsistent with the treatment of other staff who wore similar items of clothing and jewellery.

The panel found in her favour and ruled that she was forced to quit her role in 2020 after her employers created ‘an offensive, hostile and intimidating environment’.

The hospital trust has since issued an apology to Mrs Onuoha and said their dress code and uniform policy has been updated since the matter was raised.  Mrs Onuoha had been a staff member for 18 years but had worn the jewellery for 40 years to mark her devout Catholic faith.

But from 2015, she claims that managers told her to remove the item from around her neck. When she continued to refuse to remove the cross, she was suspended from clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist which left her feeling humiliated.

The tribunal heard she was forced off work with stress in June 2020 and believed she faced no alternative but to resign later that year.  She had been employed as a theatre practitioner wearing blue scrubs – a V necked short sleeved tunic and trousers on the bottom. In theatre working as a scrub nurse, she also wore a standard issue surgical covering which covered her from neck to wrist. Her cross necklace was visible when wearing scrubs but was covered when working as a scrubbed in nurse in theatre.

The tribunal said Mrs Onuoha is a devout Catholic and that wearing a cross is important to manifest her faith and confirmed that other members of staff were entitled to attend the mosque four times a day, Hindus wear entitled to wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre.

An employment tribunal panel did not agree with the hospital that there were health and safety grounds for asking Mrs Onuoha to remove the necklace and found that Croydon Health Services NHS Trust constructively dismissed Mrs Onuoha and that the dismissal was unfair and discriminatory.

Furthermore, it has ruled that there was ‘no cogent explanation’ as to why other items of jewellery and clothing were permitted ‘but a fine necklace with a small pendant of religious devotional significance is not’.

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