A London receptionist caused quite a stir last year over workplace discrimination when she was sent home without pay after refusing to wear high heels. Her petition for the Government to outlaw sexist dress codes instigated an inquiry into the issue and today, a report has been published.
The report recommends a publicity campaign be launched to ensure that employers understand their legal obligations and that employees know how they can make effective complaints. The key recommendations are that the current law needs to be enforced more vigorously and Employment Tribunals should be given the power to apply bigger financial penalties.
Most businesses will operate some sort of dress code policy within their workplace and have quite a wide discretion as to what it contains. However, employers must be aware that implementing a code that is considered discriminatory, will help pave the way for claims being brought against them. Such claims can present a significant threat to businesses in terms of reputation and financial responsibility. Despite this however, discriminatory dress codes remain in place for many businesses.
The problem that employers face is determining whether or not a dress code is discriminatory, given that what is considered to be appropriate for each gender can significantly differ. The law is clear in that it does not expect employers to apply identical requirements to both female and male employees, however it does require them to ensure that the overall standard of dress is comparable for all employees.
In terms of adopting a non-discriminatory code in your workplace, employers should ensure that the rationale for it is objectively justified and reasonable. Blanket bans or 'neutral' dress codes should be avoided where possible and requests to depart from the policy taken on a case by case basis. Employers should balance their obligations to offer employees the freedom to be remain comfortable against the importance of promoting a positive company image to customers and clients. Both of these then need to be weighed up against the employer’s responsibilities under discrimination and health and safety legislation.
It is good practice when drafting or updating a dress code to consider consulting with employees to ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and employees. This will also go a long way in helping to avoid potential discrimination claims.