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26 October 2018 | Comment | Article by Louise Price

Dress codes and sex discrimination


The Government Equalities Office has published a guide telling you all you need to know about dress codes and sex discrimination.

Many employers impose standards of dress on their workforce and having a clear policy in place for what is deemed acceptable work attire is always best practice. If staff know what is expected of them in relation to the way they must dress for work will hopefully reduce the instances where the employer is forced to take formal action to address unacceptable clothing. Having clear policies in place will also support an employer if they need to go down a formal route with an employee who refuses to adhere to the organisation’s standards and make it much more likely that the employer will be found to have acted reasonably in addressing the issue.

Despite it being best practice to have clear dress standards in place, there are limits on what an employer can legitimately require of its employees in the way they dress. What about where an employer deems it appropriate to ask an employee to “dress provocatively” or “wear high heels” because this fits with the employer’s view of the correct “image” for the role that employee performs?

The Guide from the Government Equalities Office makes it very clear that while dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of service, any less favourable treatment because of sex could be direct discrimination. It goes on to make clear that while dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, the standards imposed should be equivalent.

Employers ought to be very careful therefore that stipulations around certain standards of dress do not amount to direct sex discrimination or that they could expose employees to harassment because of the way they are dressed.

Best practice for employers when seeking to impose or revise a dress code includes:

  • considering why it is necessary to have a policy in the first place
  • consulting with staff and relevant representatives to ensure the policy is acceptable
  • considering any health and safety implications (for example imposing a requirement for a certain type of shoe).

The Government Equalities Office Guide on dress codes is worth a read. It primarily covers the issue of sex discrimination in relation to dress codes but does also touch on other categories of discrimination (such as on religious grounds) that can crop up when dealing with mandatory clothing requirements.

If you would like more information please contact the employment team.

Author bio

A highly specialised lawyer, Louise is a Partner and Head of Employment and HR services. Her expertise includes corporate support work, TUPE, pensions and employee benefits advice. She regularly advises private, public and third sector clients regarding large scale TUPE transfers of staff including drafting indemnities and warranties, advising on potential employment and pension liabilities, information and consultation obligations, and providing best value guidance.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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