Following a joint report ("High heels and workplace dress codes") published by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee and Petitions Committee in January 2017, the Government Equalities Office has finally published promised new guidance on “Dress codes and sex discrimination – what you need to know”.
The new guidance is aimed at employers who set dress codes and employees and job applicants who may have to abide by them. It advises employers that while dress codes can be a legitimate part of their terms and conditions of employment and dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, the standards imposed should be equivalent or similar. It also warns that gender specific prescriptive requirements, such as requirements for women to wear high heels, make up, skirts, manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery, are likely to be unlawful. In addition, it states that dress codes must not be a source of harassment by work colleagues or customers, for example expecting women to dress in a provocative manner or to wear revealing clothing. According to the guidance, a dress code that requires all employees to dress smartly would be lawful, provided the definition of “smart” is reasonable, such as a two-piece suit with low-heeled shoes for both sexes.
Although the guidance is specifically aimed at preventing sex discrimination and harassment, it also covers making reasonable adjustments to dress codes for disabled employees and allowing transgender employees to follow a dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity and it urges employers to be flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.
The guidance is non-statutory, meaning it is not provided for in legislation and need not be taken into account by employment tribunals. It is simply aimed at assisting with employers’ and employees’ understanding of the law.