The issue of workplace dress codes is in the news again! As you may have seen, Nicola Thorp’s story received widespread media coverage when she arrived at work, as a receptionist, wearing flat shoes and was sent home without pay by her agency for failure to comply with its dress code. The dress code required women to wear shoes with heels of between two and four inches at work.
Following this incident, Ms Thorp started a petition calling for the law to be changed to make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work. More than 150,000 people signed the petition.
The House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee carried out a joint inquiry, focusing in particular on hospitality (especially bar, waitressing and club work), retail, hotels and tourism, travel and airlines, corporate services and agency work. The report entitled “High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes” was published on 25 January 2017.
In the government’s written evidence, it considered that the dress code to which Ms Thorp had been subject is already unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, and that the law was clear regarding dress codes.
Under the Equality Act 2010 direct sex discrimination occurs where a worker is treated less favourably because of their sex.
In addition, by way of a summary, indirect sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 occurs where an employer applies a rule or practice on the face of it to all workers, such as a dress code, but those of one sex are put at a particular disadvantage. Indirect discrimination can be justified if the rule or practice is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim – this could, for example, be the case where a rule or practice is imposed for a health and safety reason.
The Committees concluded that, although the Equality Act 2010 may be clear in principle, its application to individual cases is not straightforward. The Committees are asking the government to take more action in this area. Their report made the following recommendations:
- the government should review this area of the law;
- more effective remedies should be available against employers who breach the law, including injunctions against potentially discriminatory dress codes; and
- detailed guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers and workers should be developed.
We now need to wait and see if the government will take any of these recommended steps.
In light of the report, employers should ensure that they have a genuine need or business case for imposing a rule requiring specific workplace uniforms to be used, particularly where those uniforms differ for men and women. As we have seen, difficulties will result where the employer cannot point to a legitimate aim and its actions being proportionate to achieve this.
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