Are dress codes at work sexist?

This week, gender discrimination has taken centre stage. Hundreds of marches took place this weekend and now two committees, the Women and Equalities Commission and the Petitions Commission, are calling for a review of the law to ensure employees are protected from discriminatory dress codes at work.

The Parliamentary inquiry was launched after a petition calling for it to be illegal for a company to make staff wear high heels was signed by more than 150,000 people.

As we reported last year, a receptionist, Nicola Thorp, was told that she must wear shoes that have a two to four inch heel to adhere to the company’s dress code. She was given the option of buying a pair of heels for work, but she refused and was sent home without pay. She pointed out her male colleagues were allowed to wear flat shoes, but she had been told to wear heels.

The report published by the committees expressed their concerns that despite assurances from the government that the law is clear, discriminatory dress codes are still common and the law is not working to protect employees from discriminatory practices and unsafe working conditions.

The inquiry heard from hundreds of women who described their experiences – some were required to dye their hair blonde, reapply their make up throughout the day or wear revealing clothes. Certain requirements in their employer’s dress codes make them feel uncomfortable, sexualised, humiliated and exposed to unwanted sexual attention from customers or managers.

 In light of the findings, the report recommends:

  • the government review the law and amend it, if necessary, to make it more effective
  • the government increases the penalties available to Employment Tribunals against employers who flout the law, including financial penalties. The level of the penalties should not deter employees from bringing claims but must deter employers from violating the law.
  • the Government Equalities Office should work with Acas and the Health and Safety Executive to create detailed guidance for employers to make them understand their legal obligations.

The law

The Equality Act 2010 prevents employers from discriminating over dress code in some circumstances. These include age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation.

Employers can set different requirements for men and women, but they cannot treat one gender less favourably. They may face claims of unlawful discrimination if they do.

Why can’t employees just wear what they want?  Why have any dress codes?

An employer may wish to have a dress code for many different reasons:

  • They may want their customers to easily identify their staff. For example, in shops, an employer may deem it useful that shoppers can quickly identify a member of staff from their uniform if they need help.
  • The employer may need to impose certain rules for health and safety reasons. For example, you may ask employees tie their hair back so it does not get caught in any dangerous machinery or to wear hard hats at a building site.
  • Or perhaps an employer is keen for their employees to portray a certain corporate image, therefore you may ask employees to wear business or smart attire.

Whatever rules you impose, you will need to make sure that the rules are reasonable and non-discriminatory.

Call Ellis Whittam to discuss your dress code and whether they are fit for purpose and legally compliant.

 

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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