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Dress codes making staff get shirty

Dress code

How can we stay cool, professional and comfortable in this hot weather? As the warm weather continues it can be difficult to decide what clothes to wear for work. Employers often have a dress code in the workplace for reasons of health and safety, corporate identity or because the industry demands it. A dress code can often be used to ensure workers are dressed appropriately.

Even in today’s world, many companies still ask their employees to conform with ‘traditional’ modes of dress with women being asked to wear skirts and men trousers. Those conventions may be informed by sexual stereotypes but employers are still entitled to enforce different individual clothing requirements for each gender as long as the overall requirement is the same for both men and women such as being obliged to wear “smart business attire”.

Challenges to dress codes

There are those, however, that are challenging the status quo. We have read the news stories where women are being asked to wear high heels, low-cut tops and short skirts. There are stories of men being refused the right to wear make-up or dresses (worn as a protest at the “unfairness” of the dress code imposed upon male employees in the hot weather) The lawfulness of these types of dress code is to be tested.

Nicola Thorp is one of those taking up the challenge. She was at the pinnacle of a recent debate about the obligation placed upon many women to wear high heels at work. She was informed that she would be sent home from work for wearing flat shoes and has since set-up a petition calling for it to be made unlawful for companies to oblige female employees to wear heels. So far there are has been more than 90,000 signatures supporting this petition with women sharing their stories of being asked to wear high heels (even when their feet are bleeding at the end of shift) or being asked to unbutton their shirts as part of the dress code.

Legal challenges have now extended to school uniforms.

Recently it has been reported that a seven year old girl was forbidden from wearing trousers by her school. Her complaint was that she felt ‘restricted’ when wearing a skirt and wished to feel more ‘comfortable’ during school hours. Her mother raised the issue and the school relented. There was a remaining restriction however within the education system which she wished to address and she has raised funds in order to bring a judicial review against the government. Her case focuses on the fact that the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for a public authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of the student’s sex. She states a lack of clarity in the government guidance means many girls are still being forced to wear a skirt or a dress as part of their uniform which amounts to discrimination. Though this case relates to a school there is crossover into employment and some of our clients have asked us to review dress codes to assess for potential areas of discrimination including considerations of religious dress or of transgender staff who are going through the process of transition.

So can we expect clear guidance on what employers should do?

In May 2018 the Women and Equalities Committee and the Petitions Committee, the Government Equalities Office published guidance on dress codes and sex discrimination. The main points for employers are:

  • Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy;
  • Employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain standards;
  • Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements;
  • Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

The guidance is useful but does not break any new ground and still does not provide employers with complete clarity on what they can and can’t do.

What is clear is that employers can impose certain standards of dress for appropriate business reasons. Employers can review their dress codes to assess whether those standards may be discriminatory (even if unintentionally so) and that they are applied fairly and reasonably. Employers may also wish to consider standards from a different perspective – this could be from an employee relations or PR perspective. Can we relax some standards during the hot weather or during World Cup Fever? Is it necessary or reasonable in 2018 to expect women to wear high heels? Would we attract more employees if our dress codes were more diverse and more up-to-date?

See Dress Code and Sex discrimination here

If you would like further advice on this topic or any other related Employment law queries please contact our HR & Employment team

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