Workplace dress codes – A reminder

We saw public uproar in 2016 when Nicola Thorp, a receptionist working for PwC via an agency called Portico, was sent home one day for failing to wear high heels. She was told that it was part of her agency’s ‘grooming policy’ to wear 2-4 inch heels.

As a result of the furore Nicola started a petition to make it illegal for employers to force women to wear stilettos in the workplace. The momentum gathered with media coverage and social media publicity bringing the issue into the public eye. In the end, she gathered more than 150,000 signatures.

Parliamentary report – High heels and workplace dress codes

In January 2017, the Women and Equalities Committee and Petitions Committee published their high heels and workplace dress codes report. It concluded that the law was unclear when it came to enforcing discrimination claims in cases where workers were asked to wear make-up or prescriptive items of footwear. The committees called on the Government to produce proper guidance to help employers and employees understand anti-discrimination legislation.

The report recommended required stricter penalties on employers that forced individuals to wear certain things which could be considered discriminatory.

Two years later – The Government responds

At the beginning of May, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) issued highly anticipated guidance on workplace dress codes.

To the disappointment of many, the dress code guidance[1] stops short of harsh punishments. It confirms that policies for men and women do not have to be identical, although ‘standards in post should be equivalent’.

It states ‘It is best to avoid gender prescriptive requirements; for example, the requirement to wear high heels. Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful.’

What does this means for employers?

Employers can make reasonable adjustments to any dress codes that they put in place. This is inclusive of disabled and transgender workers who are specifically referred to in the report. Going that bit further, it provides examples of scenarios when it could be lawful for employers to require employees to dress a certain way.

The report seems to skirt around the infamous high heel issue by stating that employers can ‘requir[e] all employees to wear smart shoes’.

In summary, employers are reminded:

  • to avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy
  • have health and safety reasons for having certain standards
  • ensure dress codes apply to both men and women equally although standards can vary (e.g. women to wear business dress and men to wear ties)
  • to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabilities if necessary

Dress codes can be used by employers to ensure workers are safe and dressed appropriately but they must be reasonable and also relate to the job. Employers are reminded that if employees do not comply with the standards they can instigate disciplinary action.

ACAS is due to draw up some new guidance in this matter. Once this is released, we will provide you with a further update.