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Employment Law Case Update: Workplace Dress Codes

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Unless you didn't watch the news yesterday, you won't have missed the discussions surrounding dress code and the latest report highlighting the inequalities still existing in the workplace.  The report, entitled High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, has found that the Equality Act 2010 should ban discriminatory dress rules at work, but in practice the law is not applied properly to protect workers of either gender.

The issue arose in 2015 when Nicola Thorp was sent home without pay from accountancy firm PwC after arriving in flat shoes.  The dress code of her employment agency, Portico, at the time clearly stated that women were to wear shoes with heels that were between two and four inches high.  Ms Thorp argued that wearing them all day would be bad for her feet, and that her male colleagues were not asked to follow the same rules on their clothes.

Consequently, Thorp launched a petition for a law to be introduced to change dress code requirements regarding high heels; the petition attracted over 150,000 signatures.  The Women and Equalities Committee and the Petitions Committee then invited other workers to inform them of their own experiences with discriminatory dress codes. 

A report revealed these committees heard from hundreds of women ‘who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace, as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply makeup’.  Female workers complained that having to abide by these rules made them feel sexualised by their employer and that their only contribution towards the workplace was their looks and not their skills or experience.

The report also shows that it's not only women who feel pressured by the dress codes; they also reinforce stereotypes which could leave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers feel uncomfortable.

Many claims of discrimination haven't been brought as current laws mean the burden of proof falls upon the employee to prove that they received "less favourable" treatment by a dress requirement.

Portico has now changed its dress code, which did include a list of what employees were and were not expected to wear.  As well as a shoe with a heel height of a minimum of 2 inches and maximum of 4 inches, female employees were also expected to re-apply make-up if needed to avoid 'shiny faces', wear tights with no more than 15/20 denier and wear no bright colours of nail varnish. 

This news should prompt employers to question whether any elements of their dress code could be discriminatory.  The success of Ms Thorp's petition and potential changes to the law could open the floodgates to more claims, and as MP's are also asking tribunals to raise the financial penalties for employers, this could be costly if avoided. 

This article is from our weekly Employment Law Newsletter published on 26/01/2017.  If you would like to receive this newsletter directly and be kept up to date with recent cases and Employment Law news, email events@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.