Workplace dress codes and equality Issues – The Government response is in!

On 20 April 2017, the government published its response to the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee joint report on high heels and workplace dress codes.

As you may remember, the Committees’ report highlighted that while the Equality Act 2010 may be clear in theory, its application to individual cases was not pragmatic. The report made the following recommendations for the government to provide for:

  • a full review of this area of the law;
  • more effective remedies against employers who breach equality legislation, including injunctions against potentially discriminatory dress codes; and
  • more detailed guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers and workers with regards to workplace dress codes.

Has the government listened?

The government has rejected the changes that would require legislative change. Instead, the government has favoured an approach to address the issue with more detailed guidance and awareness campaigns. By way of example:

  • The government dismissed the recommendation for increased powers of enforcement and financial penalties against employers found guilty of enforcing discriminatory dress code practices. They argued that the tribunal remedies are not intended to be punitive, but rather designed to compensate claimants for detriment or unfair treatment. Further, tribunals already have the power to award compensation for injury to feelings, and these awards can already take into account the impact of the discriminatory act on the individual; and
  • The specific recommendation proposing an injunctive power on dress code policy was also considered disproportionate. An injunction is a court order requiring a specific act to be done or preventing a person from doing an act. Whilst the government did not approve the recommendation, it did concede that their future guidance may require an employer to suspend a disputed dress policy pending a resolution at a tribunal.

Whilst the talk of future guidance on acceptable dress code practices is to be welcomed, the government has still circumvented the key recommendation of the Committees’ report, which was to fundamentally review this area of nebulous law. The resulting difficulty is that there remains considerable uncertainty about specific provisions in the Equality Act 2010 and their application to dress code policies in practice. This issue is compounded by the lack of recent case law challenging discriminatory dress code practices.

It remains to be seen whether the persuasive approach of more detailed guidance adopted by the government will actually work. As Maria Miller, who is chair of the Committee, summarised, the commitments made by the government to ‘increasing’ the awareness of women’s equality rights are welcomed, but there is still the need to ‘monitor how this changes women’s experiences of the workplace’ in practice.