HR · 26 January 2017

Workplace dress codes: Government urged to review equality legislation

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The 2010 Equality Act consolidated all existing anti-discrimination legislation into a single act

A parliamentary report has urged government to review equality legislation regarding workplace dress codes, after two committees of MPs identified a failure of employers to follow anti-discrimination measures.

The issue of dress code discrimination was brought to the two committees in light of the Nicola Thorp case, a receptionist at professional auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers who was sent home without pay in 2015 after refusing to swap her flat shoes for two-inch heels.

Crucially, the report stated that the Equality Act 2010 had failed in its purpose to ban discriminatory workplace dress codes. It concluded that “the law is obviously not working”.

MPs on the petitions and women and equalities committees recommended a national awareness campaign to highlight the obligations of employers and to ensure employees knew their rights and how to address discrimination.

The committee outlined the possibility for discrimination against older women and those suffering from disabilities. It was also raised in the report that employers had frequently failed to account for health and safety requirements when implementing workplace dress codes.

The report cited evidence from experts at College of Podiatry that found, on average, women reported pain after just one hour of wearing “ill-fitting” high heels.

The recommendations arrived alongside new research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) that found over eight in ten managers witnessed gender discrimination in their workplace in the last 12 months.

CMI’s survey revealed that the most common gender bias came in promotion decisions, observed by half of all managers.

How to avoid dress code discrimination within a small business

Speaking exclusively to Business Advice in light of the report, Kate Palmer, head of advisory at HR consultancy firm Peninsula, advised employers on how to stay within the law and avoid legal action against them.

“Employers are entitled to have and implement a dress code in their business – they may even be required to do so because of health and safety standards. However, employers should ensure that their dress codes are not discriminating against certain members of staff.

“Dress codes must apply equally to men and women although they may have different requirements so long as these are of a similar standard.

“For example, a requirement for men to wear a shirt and tie will not treat men less favourably if women are expected to wear smart office attire.

“The same cannot be said of the requirement to wear high heels – smart footwear can be achieved through wearing flat shoes and it is likely the requirement to wear high heels is less favourable treatment as they are requiring females to look “sexy” rather than smart.

“When implementing a dress code which requires different treatment for men and women, employers need to ensure they have a genuine business reason for the difference to justify the policy. Some employers may require different dress for authenticity reasons or because the job role requires it, though it may be hard to prove this.

“It is essential that employers take time to speak to members of staff about the dress code and take on board any individual concerns, especially if these are related to gender.

“In addition to discrimination on the grounds of sex, dress codes have the potential to fall foul of other protected characteristics. A dress code requiring men to wear smart trousers and women to wear smart skirts could discriminate against certain religions where females are required to cover parts of their body.

“Similarly, a dress code which restricts the wearing of religious dress or religious symbols will need a business or safety reason to justify it as the policy indirectly discriminates against employees of those religions.

“Policies such as non-visible tattoos may discriminate on the grounds of disability against those who have a severe disfigurement and use a tattoo to cover this. High heel requirements may also constitute disability discrimination against those with medical conditions resulting in them being unable to wear high heels for long periods of time.”

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.