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Workplace Dress Code and Discrimination

Workplace Dress Code and Discrimination


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Dress code in the workplace recently became a hot topic on many social media platforms and cases where employees have taken legal action have been in the spotlight.

Dress codes are put in place for many reasons, such as health and safety, alignment of employee appearance and branding. Many employers and organisations want to portray an image to the public that represents their organisation’s purpose and professionalism – but at what cost?

Is forcing women to wear high-heels in the workplace sexual discrimination and a strong reminder that outdated attitudes and practices are still at play for both male and female employees?

In a recent case, a female receptionist was sent home without pay by her employer for refusing to wear high-heels in line with the company’s “personal appearance guidelines”.  There was no clarification as to why the company thought that wearing high-heels would improve the receptionist’s job performance and it is not clear why they thought wearing flat shoes would impede her performance or her ability to do her job. Wearing high-heels for long periods of time can be painful and, in some circumstances, hazardous – not an effect that would improve job performance. If the receptionist were male, would he be expected to wear high-heels to improve his performance?

The employer in this case did not have a valid and justifiable reason to enforce this dress code and it was considered unreasonable. Some would say this is sexual discrimination. When looking at Equality legislation, this appears to be the case.

Under Section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”), direct discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another for “protected” reasons, which are defined under the Act as: age, disability, sex and religion, among others. The limitations do not have to be identical for both sexes as long as on the whole, they are in place to an equal degree and do not inflict an unequal burden on one of the sexes. If the burden is unbalanced between male and female, then it becomes challengeable and potentially discriminatory. 

The media attention on this subject sparked further argument and debates over which sex is harder done by when it comes to dress code in the office. For example, men have argued that if women can’t be forced to wear high-heels, they should not be forced to wear suits and ties. The argument being that, whilst women may be uncomfortable in high-heels, men are forced to wear suits and ties which are uncomfortable, particularly in summer when temperatures rise, perspiration increases and their jackets become their very own prison.

It is argued that women can wear loose clothing, trousers and t-shirts and still look smart, whereas if a man working in a “professional office” were to wear a t-shirt, he probably wouldn’t be considered smartly dressed or even smart-casual, just casual.

If employers emphasise that men must wear suits and women must wear high-heels as part of the company’s appearance of “professionalism”, could you say that this was a balanced burden of pain and discomfort, therefore not classed as discriminatory towards either sex?

This subject continues to be debated and is becoming increasingly important, compelling employers to revisit their dress codes and attitudes towards male and female employees.

In summary, enforcing a dress code should be justifiable and be applied equally to all staff members alike, whether male or female and in order to be lawful, a dress code must not be discriminatory - it must be balanced.

If you’re worried about sexual discrimination and your dress code, call and speak to our Employment Law Team now on 0117 926 4121 or make a free online enquiry.