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Treading a fine line

As I was getting ready for work this morning I stopped to listen to the interview which BBC Breakfast had with a lady called Nicola Thorp. For those of you who didn’t see the broadcast, Miss Thorp was the receptionist who was sent home from her job at PWC for refusing to wear high heels at work.

Miss Thorp’s experience prompted a petition to Parliament making it illegal for employers to require women to wear high heels at work. That petition sparked intense debate in Parliament and what is clear is that the report is going to call on the Government to review the area of law and to make it illegal for discriminatory dress codes to be imposed, in terms of the Equality Act 2010. The report by MPs recommends that a publicity campaign be launched to ensure that employers know their legal obligations, but the key recommendation and the one which will send shudders down the spines of employers is that it’s recommended that the Employment Tribunal should be given the power to fine employers who attempt to enforce discriminatory dress codes.

The recommendations in the report are expected to be debated in Parliament in March.

A Government spokesperson has said “No employer should discriminate against workers on the grounds of gender – it is unacceptable and it is against the law. Dress codes must be reasonable and include equivalent requirements for both men and women.”

So what will the new law mean for your business?

As an employer you are entitled to ensure that your employees promote a positive and professional image.

Therefore your dress code policy should take account of the following;
1. Relevant health and safety requirements;

2. Respect for the cultural and religious traditions of all employees, i.e. both male and female;

3. Any adjustments that you need to make because of an employee’s disability;

4. The equality of requirements – are you imposing the same requirements on your male employees as well as your female employees? If not, why not?

5. Is the employee client facing?

The employment agency which Miss Thorp worked for imposed conditions on their female employees on when they had to reapply their make-up and were specific on the colours of lipstick, blusher, mascara, eye shadow and foundation, they were to wear nail polish of a specific colour, the thickness of their tights had to be between 15 and 20 denier and there had to be no visible roots on dyed hair. Clearly none of these factors were relevant to the proper performance of her duties.

The MPs report should be debated in Parliament in March. Employers will see a change to the law shortly thereafter. Given that financial penalties are due to be enforced against employers for discriminatory dress codes then can you afford to tread the fine line between legal and illegal?

If you have any questions about your dress code policy or the conditions which you impose on what your employees wear at work then please contact me at jks@businesslaw.co.uk.

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