Is your business aware of the laws surrounding dress code discrimination?

In May of last year, Nicola Thorpe started a petition calling for the law to be changed surrounding female dress codes. This was a result of Ms Thorpe being sent home on her first day at work for a corporate finance company on the basis that she was not wearing high heels.

The issue

The company’s list of requirements for female employees has since been revealed to include:

  • “Makeup at all times (unless for medical reasons) with a minimum of light blusher, lipstick or tinted gloss, mascara, eye shadow, light foundation/powder”
  • No visible hair roots
  • High Heels

In some public or client-facing roles dress codes are quite understandable, and are legal. However, the extreme demands made on female staff in this company’s guidelines highlighted a serious problem with sexism embedded in the workplace.

Nicola Thorpe’s petition was signed by over 150,000 people before MPs addressed the issue. Two commons committees collected evidence from hundreds of female employees who had experienced discriminatory dress codes. The research resulted in a UK parliamentary report (published 25th January 2017), as rules for female employees, such as wearing particular makeup, certain hairstyles or short skirts, were found – with no similar requests for men. The report has led to a call for an overhaul of current equality laws.

“The government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. We call on the government to review this area of the law” – High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, from parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities.

The current laws

Employers are lawfully able to implement a dress code to ensure that employees are dressed appropriately for their job and the work they carry out. Employers can implement a number of dress code rules, such as that health and safety attire is worn or to cover up tattoos, for example. Although it must be noted that requests made in the policy must be justifiable as being for a more substantial reason than stylistic preference.

However, it remains that gender discrimination is unlawful – so whilst it may not be outright illegal to ask a woman to wear high heels for work, it is unlawful to treat women less favourably than men. Employment law solicitor Laura Allner, a senior associate at CMS notes: “Where a policy clearly treats women less favourably than men, for example applying strict image criteria to females but no corresponding rules for men, then this would constitute direct sex discrimination, to which there is no defence.”

Be aware that an employee can raise a formal or informal grievance with their employer if they feel they have been discriminated against and that laws are likely to tighten in the near future. If you’re overdue an HR overhaul this could be the perfect opportunity to review your procedures. You should also ensure that you have the protection of a relevant Management Liability and Employment Practices Liability policy in place by speaking to your insurer or broker.

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