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Could employers be fined for unfair or sexist dress codes?

By July 22, 2019July 23rd, 2019Case Review, Current Affairs, Legal Update
sexist dress codes | HR Solutions

Flip flops or no flip flops?! Do you think shorts and flip flops are acceptable to wear in the office during hot weather?

In a recent radio interview, with BBC Radio Northampton, our HR Knowledge Manager discussed whether it is ever OK to wear flipflops at work. Click on the play icon below to listen to the interview.

Duty to ensure thermal comfort

Employers have a duty to ensure an employee’s ‘thermal comfort’ and relaxing an organisation’s dress code in the warmer months is one recommended way of achieving this. However, employers are not obliged to relax dress code rules and indeed any articles of clothing worn as personal protective equipment (PPE) must continue to be worn to ensure health and safety. Otherwise, what is and is not appropriate to be worn in the warmer months should be judged on a case by case basis, and consideration should be given to; the culture of the organisation, the image to be portrayed and the work being done.

High heels and workplace dress codes

A government report High heels and Workplace Dress Codes, came after the well-publicised experiences of a London receptionist in 2016.  The London receptionist was sent home from work without pay for not wearing high heels. The receptionist then launched a parliamentary petition which received over 150,000 signatures. This led to a joint report by the Parliamentary Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee. During their research, the MPs heard from a number of women about their own similar experiences. Some had to unbutton blouses and wear shorter skirts.

System favours employers but fails employees

The receptionist’s employers sent her home after she refused to wear heels between two and four inches high. These were the dress code rules of her employment agency, Portico.  The receptionist said wearing heels all day wasn’t good for her feet. She added that there wasn’t a dress code for male colleagues. The receptionist believed the “the current system favours the employer and is failing employees.”

The Portico dress code has since been changed, but it originally included:

• Reapplication of make-up
• Specific thickness of hosiery
• No roots on dyed hair
• Specific colours of nail varnish.

The report recommended a publicity campaign to ensure employers know their legal obligations, and also, crucially, that workers know their rights and how to complain effectively. The overall recommendation was to enforce the existing law more vigorously, if necessary with employment tribunals given powers to issue increased penalties.

High heels policy

Dress codes are not illegal but could constitute sex discrimination. if a policy treats women less favourably than men. A high heels policy could indirectly discriminate against women, provided the complainant can show that the policy puts her at a disadvantage. Given the health issues associated with wearing high heels, this argument has merit. The employer would have to defend its dress policy and demonstrate that it has a genuine business interest for the policy. But in this instance, it could be argued that smart, flat shoes would be just as appropriate.

Acceptable dress code requests

Employers must be able to show that their dress code is proportionate and that its purpose is to achieve a particular business aim. For example, a policy on hair style could not be enforced if it is only concerned with appearances but could be enforceable if health and safety reasons require staff to tie their hair back.

For further HR support and advice call HR Solutions on 0844 324 5840 or contact us online to find out how we can help your business.


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