Dress codes have recently been thrown into the spotlight, following a government review of current workplace practices.
A joint report issued by two Parliamentary committees said that the Equality Act 2010 should be properly enforced to ban sexist dress rules at work, which discriminate against women.
The report, entitled High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, was commissioned following the story of Nicola Thorp, a receptionist who was sent home from work without pay in December 2015 for refusing to wear two to four inch high heels, a requirement set out in the dress code. In response, Nicola set up an online petition on the government website calling for a change in the law, making it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. The petition was signed by over 150,000 people and attracted a great deal of press attention.
The report concluded that the Equality Act 2010 should ban discriminatory dress rules at work, but in practice, the law is not applied properly to protect workers of either gender. The report found that discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. The committee found examples of cases where women have been required to wear revealing outfits, dye their hair blonde and to constantly reapply makeup.
The report has called for the Government to review the law and to ask Parliament to make changes, if necessary, to ensure that it is more effective in preventing discriminatory dress codes.
This high profile report is a timely reminder that dress codes can be a minefield for employers, for many different reasons, including the nature of the work being carried out and cultural and religious issues in the workplace.
Interestingly, shortly after Nicola’s case hit the press the agency she worked for removed its old dress code and replaced it with a new gender-neutral dress code.
Going forward employers should review their current dress codes and think carefully about the content. The general guidance when implementing a dress code is to avoid being too specific. It is key that dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements. Case law establishes that dress codes will not normally be discriminatory if an even-handed approach is taken between men and women and dress requirements are based on conventional standards of, for example, ‘smartness’.
In addition, employers need to recognise that they will have to consider making adjustments to their dress code where an employee is disadvantaged due to a protected characteristic, such as religion, sex or disability. An employer may be entitled to refuse the employee’s request but before doing so they need to show that they have thought about the reason why that particular aspect of the dress code is being imposed and balance that against the disadvantage being suffered by the employee. The employer needs to think about whether it can still meet the objective of the dress code but in a different way, which allows the employee’s changes to be accommodated.
Five top tips for organisations on dress codes:
- Be clear at the outset on what you are looking to achieve and why
- Avoid being prescriptive about what should be worn if the aim is just to ensure that staff are smart or projecting a professional image and consider current conventions
- Set out what you do regard as unacceptable e.g. beachwear (unless you employ lifeguards!)
- Make it clear how the code will take into account cultural and religious requirements
- Set out the implications of a failure to comply with the code
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