Government issues advice to employers on acceptable dress code rules

News Article

New Government guidelines could mean that employers will no longer be able to stipulate sexist dress codes, such as the compulsory wearing of make-up, nail polish and high heels.

The Government Equalities Office, the Department for International Development and International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, have together issued guidance, entitled Dress codes and sex discrimination: what you need to know.

The guidelines, which follow recommendations made by the Commons Women and Equalities and Petitions Select Committees, uphold an employer’s right to enforce certain dress codes as part of an employer’s terms and conditions of service.

However, it makes the distinction that employers should refrain from gender-specific rules, stating: “For example, any requirement to wear make-up, have manicured nails, wear hair in certain styles or to wear specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful, assuming there is no equivalent requirement for men.”

The guidelines also state that requiring female employees to wear high heels but not having footwear requirements for men is likely to constitute direct discrimination. It also warns that such a dress code could be viewed as indirect discrimination against disabled employees, as heels can cause problems for individuals with mobility difficulties or might increase the risk of a fall for those who are visually impaired.

Last year, the issue of high heels in the workplace hit the headlines after a petition on the issue was signed by more than 138,500 people. The campaign was led by Nicola Thorp, who was sent home without pay for wearing formal flat shoes rather than high heels.

At the time she was working at the London office of top accountancy firm PwC. Ms Thorp refused to obey the rules of her employment agency, Portico, that she should wear shoes with heels that were between two and four inches high – despite her male colleagues not being required to follow similar rules.

Lara Murray, an Associate and employment law expert at Palmers said: “A dress code which stipulates receptionists should dress smartly, in order to portray a positive public-facing image is entirely lawful because it is not a gender-specific requirement. Requiring all employees to wear smart shoes is also lawful. However, dress codes which affect one gender only may well cross the line and be considered as sex discrimination.

“These new guidelines mean that employers now have no excuse – their legal obligations and dress codes which are deemed unacceptable, are clearly laid out.”

If you are unsure whether your workplace dress code rules are lawful, or for help with any other issues relating to employment law, please contact us.