Dress Codes and Sex Discrimination

On 17 May 2018, the Government Equalities Offices published new guidance on Dress Codes and Sex Discrimination.  The guidance is aimed at employers who have dress codes and follows a slew of dress-code related sex discrimination cases in the Employment Tribunal.   The guidance will be particularly useful to workplaces such as offices, hotels, airlines, temporary work agencies, corporate services, the retail sector and in the hospitality industry, especially in bars, restaurants and clubs.

The guidance was written following a recommendation from the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Petitions Committee and sets out how the law might apply in cases of sex discrimination where an employer requires female staff to wear, for instance, high heels, make-up, hair of a particular length or style, or revealing clothing.

The guidance defines a workplace dress code as a set of standards that employers develop about what is appropriate for employees to wear to work and confirms that dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of employment.

It confirms to employers that; –

  • dress codes for men and women do not have to be identical, but standards imposed should be equivalent
  • requiring any gender-specific items, such as high heels, make up or have manicured nails, is likely to be unlawful
  • dress codes must not be a source of harassment by colleagues or customers, for example women being expected to dress in a provocative manner

It also confirms that; –

  • when setting a dress code, employers should have regard to any health and safety implications. For example, if an employer requires staff to wear particular shoes (as part of a dress code rather than for personal protective equipment purposes), then they should consider whether this may make staff more prone to slips and trips or injuries to the feet
  • where someone meets the definition of a disabled person in the Equality Act 2010, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to any elements of the job which place a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people, including non-enforcement of a dress code which is more onerous on a disabled employee
  • transgender employees should be allowed to follow the organisation’s dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity and if there is a staff uniform, they should be supplied with an option which suits them
  • employers should be flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work

The guidance reminds employers that consulting employees and trade unions over any proposed dress code or changes to an existing code will help ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and its staff.