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Dress Codes-Government guidance

31st May 2018

Over many years the topic of dress codes has been the cause of workplace disputes, and cases in the Employment Tribunals. The topic received a lot of attention last year in connection with female City corporate worker Nicola Thorp and other staff being required to wear high heels as part of a set dress code, despite the known health problems associated with long term wear of high heels.

The Government Equalities Office has just published new guidance on the use and implementation of dress codes. This guidance looks in particular at the issue in relation to unlawful discrimination, and harassment.

The guidance confirms that the current legal position is that an employer is entitled to operate different dress codes for male and female staff, so long as the codes are no more onerous for one gender than the other, and that they are equivalent.

The guidance acknowledges that the use of a dress code can help in setting standards in the workplace, and can be a legitimate part of an employee’s terms of employment. It looks at a number of set scenarios and examines whether certain requirements in those scenarios are legal or may be discriminatory. It also sets out various frequently asked questions which an employer or individual may raise in connection with the use of a workplace dress code.

A number of rather obvious points are made, for example, that requiring both men and women to dress provocatively, while probably not amounting to unlawful discrimination, may raise the risk of harassment of the workers.

While the guidance accepts that it can be fair to have different codes for male and female staff, it goes on to note that avoiding gender specific requirements is generally preferable. Any dress codes should also take account of health and safety requirements. Helpfully it reminds employers that they owe a duty to consider reasonable adjustments for disabled staff, and notes that a reasonable adjustment might include not applying the dress code.

An issue that has been raised in a number of cases linked to dress codes is that of religious discrimination. The guidance makes the specific point that on the subject of the wearing of religious symbols, employers should be flexible, and not prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.

The guidance also gives specific attention to the matter of transgender staff and the use of dress codes. It recommends that transgender staff should be allowed to follow the organisation’s dress code in a way which they feel matches their view of their gender identity.

On a practical note the guidance does recommend that employers consult with their staff over the introduction and content of any dress code, and that employers should carefully consider the reasons behind the codes in question. These two points are invaluable guidance. While many people may consider these as simple statements of the obvious, giving careful consideration to the real reasons for the content and introduction of a dress code, and then consulting staff about them are likely to avoid future unhappiness and disputes with staff.       

If you need any further advice on any matter raised in this article do not hesitate to contact us at Hallett Employment Law Services Ltd.

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