Dress Codes and Discrimination – Who wears the trousers?
Employers often require employees to comply with dress codes either to ensure that a professional image is maintained or because of specific health and safety requirements.
It is increasingly important for employers to give careful thought to their dress code policies to avoid being exposed to claims of unlawful discrimination which could be on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, sex or race.
To assist employers, the Government Equalities Offices have recently published new guidance on Dress Codes and Discrimination which you can access by clicking here.
The guidance confirms that dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, however the standards imposed should be equivalent. Employers should avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements for example any requirement that women wear make up, skirts or high heels and ensure that it is not more onerous for one gender than another.
A requirement for female employees to wear high heels, but no footwear requirement for men, is likely to be unlawful on the grounds that it directly discriminates against women by treating them less favourably than men.
The guidance also warns of the risk of requiring employees to dress in a provocative or revealing fashion as this may increase the risk of an employee being vulnerable to sexual harassment.
The guidance reminds employers that they should make reasonable adjustments to dress codes for disabled employees and allow transgender employees to follow a dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity. It urges employers to be flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.
Employers should therefore think carefully about the contents of any dress code, including considering the following questions:
- What are the reasons why the organisation wants to implement a dress code and is there a genuine business requirement for the policy?
- Do the requirements of the policy apply to all employees equally; for example, to men and to women (bearing in mind that it is not necessary for both sexes to wear the same but there must be equivalent standards)?
- Are there any health and safety implications?
- Could the restriction on a particular kind of clothing or jewellery be deemed to be of religious significance?
Finally if you are thinking about introducing a new dress code it is advisable to consult your employees before implementing it. This is not a legal requirement but can help flag up issues at the start rather than further down the line.