Dress Code Dilemmas: the risks of imposing a workplace dress code

Discriminatory Dress Codes

A recent report has said that, despite the Equality Act 2010 (the “Equality Act”), workers are not being protected from discriminatory dress codes.

The report follows the publicity surrounding a London receptionist who was sent home for not wearing high heels.

Why have a dress code?

It is often sensible to have a dress code. It is one of the ways a company can promote its brand and project the right image. It may also be necessary for health and safety reasons.

What is the law?

Direct discrimination occurs where an employer treats an employee less favourably than it treats others because of a protected characteristic. An employer cannot try and justify this. So, requiring a female employee to wear high heels or look a certain way, when there are no corresponding rules applicable to men, is likely to be direct discrimination.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a rule or policy has general application across the workforce but puts employees with a particular protected characteristic at a disadvantage. An employer can seek to justify the policy on business grounds, provided there is not a less discriminatory way of achieving their aim. Cases of indirect discrimination have arisen in relation to banning religious jewellery. 

What are the risks?

An employee could bring a discrimination claim which takes up time and is costly to defend. Where the employee remains in employment, there will be no loss of earnings but a tribunal can make an award for injury to feelings. These awards can be substantial and lead to negative publicity.

What can employers do?

Review your dress codes. What it is you want to achieve? Does the dress code do does this without adversely impacting on protected characteristics? Treat both informal complaints and formal grievances seriously and, if you are contacted by ACAS in relation to a claim, seek advice. 


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