HR 16 August 2017

An employer’s guide to workplace dress code legislation

A waist down view of a group of business persons standing in the office building
Workplace dress code legislation has generated widespread media attention in the past year
Here, Nick Le Riche, a partner at legal firm Bircham Dyson Bell, responds to ongoing developmentsaround workplace dress code legislation and highlights everything employers need to be aware of.

The issue of workplace dress codes has been one of the hot employment topics of the last 12months, and the government has now published its response to a joint report by two House of Commons committees on this issue.

Introduction to workplace dress code legislation

Dress codes gained widespread media coverage last year through the case of Nicola Thorp, who was sacked for refusing to wear high heeled shoes. Ms Thorp was employed by Portico to work as a corporate receptionist and on her first day in the role she claimed that that she was told to go home without pay because she refused to buy shoes that had heels between two and four inches high.

Ms Thorp then launched an online petition, which gathered in excess of 150, 000 signatures, to try to make it illegal for employers to force women to wear high heels at work. Given that dress codes can often be a contentious matter within the workplace, it’s not surprising that disputes over how they are applied crop up fairly frequently.

Indeed, last year British Airways settled a long running dispute over its dress code after it agreed to allow female new recruits to wear trousers.

Government response

Following Ms Thorp’s position, a joint inquiry by the House of Commons Petition Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee was established and they published their recommendations on 25 January 2017. The Committees made three main recommendations:

The government should review this area of the law

That more effective remedies should be available against employers who breach the law, including injunctions against potentially discriminatory dress codes

That detailed guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers should be developed

The government provided its response to these recommendations on 20 April 2017, and although it confirmed that it wanted to ensure that women were not held back in the workplace by outdated attitudes and practices, it believed that the current law was to sufficient to protect women from discriminatory dress codes.

Legal position

So what are the legal parameters for enforcing dress codes?

From an employment law perspective the starting point is that a dress code will not amount to direct sex discrimination if it imposes different requirements for men and women provided that the overall standard of dress is the same.

For example, a dress code that required male staff to wear a shirt and tie and female staff to dress “appropriately and to a similar standard” was not found to be unlawful.

Similarly, a code which allowed women to have long hair, provided that it was clipped back, but prevented men having hair that grew below shirt-collar length was also permissible because the same standard of appearance was applied to both men and women.

However, a dress code which is applied more strictly to men than women, or vice versa, is likely to be direct discrimination.


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