Can I Tell Staff How to Dress for Work?

By April Harrington.
25 Mar 2020

Employers often implement a dress policy to ensure staff maintain a professional image at work. The main reason for this is to ensure employees reflect well on the organisation.

Having a policy on how your employees dress isn’t necessarily unlawful. However, certain requirements could qualify as discriminatory and potentially contribute to dated gender stereotypes. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:

Workplace Dress Codes

Gender discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against staff due to gender.

Despite this, gender discrimination still occurs in the workplace. Research by Slater & Gordon has indicated that one in ten women have been told to wear ‘more revealing’ tops to work. Some participants admitted that they have been actively encouraged to dress more provocatively in the workplace.

This highlights that gender stereotyping in the workplace remains very much an issue in the modern working environment. It’s up to employers to work against it.

The law

Government guidance around dress codes and sex discrimination confirms that dress code requirements for men and women may differ. However, the standards imposed must be ‘equivalent’. Any less favourable treatment ‘could’ qualify as discrimination.

This means you cannot treat individuals any less favourably or place them at a disadvantage due to their gender. You must take this into consideration when constructing a dress code.

For example, you might require women to wear skirts, make-up, or jewellery. But, with no equivalent requirement for men, it’s unlikely to stand up to a legal challenge in most circumstances. It will likely be seen as crossing the line.

The correct approach

The downfall for many employers on this subject is usually the same. They believe that other companies have similar dress code requirements (like above) so it must be fine to have them too.

To ensure you don’t fall down at the same hurdle, be ready to cast a critical eye over your dress code. Learn to determine whether it may be discriminatory and if the code is truly needed to achieve a legitimate aim.

To give another example, formal settings often want their staff to dress smartly. This is a reasonable aim. And, it can be achieved without requiring female employees to wear high heeled shoes.

This argument was used by Nicola Thorp, an agency worker set to work at PWC. She was sent home from work in 2016 after refusing to wear high heels in line with the company’s dress code. Her  legal challenge against this practice was what led to Government’s 2018 guidance mentioned above.

Dress codes may not always appear discriminatory on the surface. But you should always be prepared to dig deeper into the various requirements. Consider how the effect of them may ultimately lead to less favourable treatment for women.

Expert support

If you're facing a dress code issue at work and aren't sure where to turn, speak to a Croner expert today on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

April Harrington.

An experienced Senior Employment Law Consultant, who has worked for the group for over 9 years. April specialises in discrimination legislation. April has an extensive background in training, as well as recruitment and hospitality.

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