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Dress code or mess code?

Thursday 04 May 2017

Sexist company dress codes have received media attention again recently. This is the idea that dress codes are discriminating against women and in some instances, sexualising what women wear in the workplace. Hattie Sketchley-Bates from employment law experts HELP provides the low down.

In December 2015, Nicola Thorp was sent home from her agency reception job at PwC for not wearing heels. Thorp refused when asked to buy a pair of shoes with at least a two-inch heel and was subsequently told to leave unpaid. Since her debacle, Thorp launched a parliamentary petition calling for a law to stop firms from requiring women to wear high heels at work. The well signed petition has resulted in a joint report by the Women and Equalities Committee and the Petitions Committee titled “High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes: Urgent Action Needed” which was released in January 2017.

The Government have since confirmed that they have rejected calls to place an explicit ban on these and similar dress codes. However they are planning to introduce guidelines later this year to improve workers’ awareness.

What are the issues here?

Health – Requiring women to wear high heels can actually have an effect on their health. Many studies, as far back as 1740 to the present day report the musculoskeletal damage that wearing high heeled shoes can cause.

Equality – The report mentioned above finds that the Equality Act 2010 is not yet fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination. Thorp’s argument was that men are not required to wear similar shoes. Most companies would want their employees to appear smart, but how do you define ‘smart’ and not discriminate against any minority?

Sexualisation – The authors of the report asked for women to send in their experiences of dress codes and they were inundated with examples of women being asked to dress more provocatively by wearing low cut tops, tighter skirts or trousers and high heels.

How do you maintain a dress code that does not discriminate or objectify?

Businesses, particularly those that are customer/public facing, will want to ensure that their employees present themselves in a manner that reflects the professionalism of the business, which will differ company to company.

To enforce a dress code, it needs to be written in a policy.  You need to ask yourself how you want your employees to present themselves, clean and pressed clothes is always a good start. If you require a man to wear a shirt and tie, do you require women to wear a shirt? Do heeled shoes for women really help them to carry out their role better?  Could smart flat shoes do the job just as well?

It is also useful to state what is not acceptable.  For example; denim, see through fabrics, leather, t-shirts, trainers etc.

If you are specific about what you deem acceptable and not acceptable workwear, and you are not discriminating against anyone, dress codes are simple to enforce as long as you have a written policy that is communicated to employees.

If you do not currently have a dress code policy, Honest Employment Law Practice can HELP you with this.

They provide outsourced HR and Employment Law advice to businesses, from producing bespoke employment documentation to advising and guiding managers through HR issues, right through to employment tribunal representation. 

As a client of HELP you are allocated your own commercially aware consultant who quickly gets to know you and your business. They do not tie you into long term contracts so if at any point the service is no longer suitable to your business, you are free to leave at any time. 

Why not give them a call today on 01543 431 050 to discuss how they can HELP you?