Equalities Office urges businesses to avoid discrimination in new dress code guidelines

It’s not uncommon for employers to request that their employees follow a certain dress code, be it for health and safety reasons (such as healthcare workers not being allowed to wear jewellery) or because they wish to convey an image of corporate professionalism. Things have been getting increasingly tricky, however, and there’s still a lot of confusion as to what employers are allowed to ask of their employees. Employers must tread carefully when it comes to dress codes, as they could find themselves facing accusations of discrimination more easily than they may think.

What does The Government Equalities Office (GEO) have to say?

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) has published new guidelines on dress codes and the workplace. The guide, entitled ‘Dress codes and sex discrimination – what you need to know,’ attempts to address the issues of inequality in the workplace. Whilst the law already prohibits dress codes that require women to wear make-up, high heels and skirts, it seems that many employers are yet to keep up.

The guidance follows a 2017 report produced by The Women and Equalities Committee, entitled ‘High heels and workplace dress codes’, which concluded that the law surrounding sex discrimination at work was largely misunderstood or not enforced by employers.

What requests are employers allowed to make?

Many employers do not give detailed dress codes, and simply ask their staff to ‘dress smartly’. Whilst its reasonable for any employers to want their employees to look presentable or project a certain image of their company, they must make sure that their definition of ‘smart’ is not unknowingly discriminatory.

Some of the new guidelines suggest that employers:

  • Avoid gender-specific requirements such as ‘make-up, manicured nails, wear hair in certain styles or to wear specific types of hosiery or skirts, assuming there is no equivalent requirement for men’,
  • Give transgender employees the choice to dress in a way that matches their gender identity,
  • Don’t impose gender-specific dress codes, such as high heels, on disabled employees who may find it difficult to walk, and
  • Make clear employee’s options if they face victimisation from their employer for not complying with the dress code.

What’s next?

It’s likely that, due to a lack of clear guidance, there will be cases of sex discrimination brought against employers. We’ll keep you updated on any developments, but in the meantime we suggest taking a look at any dress codes you currently have in place and talking about them with employees. This can be a good way of gauging if they make anyone uncomfortable or if there’s any possibility that it could be discriminatory.

That being said, dress codes are becoming far more relaxed in the UK, with only half of all companies enforcing one. If you do have a dress code, however, it’s best to keep things under review.

In the meantime, you can contact Alison for expert advice on any of the above.

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