Dress codes and sex discrimination - The Government's response

Last month the Government Equalities Office published its long-overdue guidance on dress codes and sex discrimination in response to the 2015 Nicola Thorp “wear heels or go home” controversy and the corresponding report by the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee.

The guidance, which can be found in full at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dress-codes-and-sex-discrimination-what-you-need-to-know, sets out advice for employers on their legal responsibilities when compiling a workplace dress code policy and advice to employees on what to do if they believe that their rights have been infringed.

In respect of employers, the government confirms that dress codes can be a legitimate part of an organisation’s terms and conditions of service and that while dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, the standards imposed should be equivalent. Specific recommendations include:

  • Considering the reasoning behind having a policy.
  • Consulting with employees, staff organisations and trade unions to ensure that the policy is acceptable.
  • Considering the health and safety implications of any requirements.
  • Avoiding gender specific requirements such as wearing high heels.
  • Avoiding the prohibition of religious symbols which do not interfere with an employee’s work.
  • Considering reasonable adjustments to dress codes for disabled workers.
  • Allowing transgender employees to follow the organisation’s dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity.

In respect of employees, the government briefly recommends that an employee who considers their rights have been infringed should speak to their manager in the first instance and then to their employer's human resources department. It advises that help can also be obtained from an employee's trade union, ACAS and EHRC.

Unfortunately, it appears that the government’s guidance on this matter has fallen short in a number of ways. It does not protect the rights of workers like Nicola Thorp herself and, therefore, not only overlooks the entire genesis of the matter but also finds itself at odds with the Equality Act 2010. It fails to impose stricter penalties on employers who enforce discriminatory dress codes, in turn, failing to pack the proverbial punch which the Committees had asked for in their report. Some would even go so far as to say that the government has paid mere lip service to an issue which merits a far more detailed analysis.


If you would like more information or advice relating to this article or an Employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Cook on 01727 798098.

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