HR Alert: Legal obligation over workplace dress code

A RECENT report on dress codes at work has called on the government to take urgent action to ensure existing equality legislation is enforced more vigorously.

Receptionist Nicola Thorp hit the headlines after she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. She subsequently launched a petition that garnered more than 150,000 signatures, leading to a parliament debate earlier this month and report entitled High heels and workplace dress codes.

There is an increased risk of an indirect sex discrimination claim against employers who force female staff to wear high heels, but the parliamentary petitions committee and women and equalities committee have called for a review of equality legislation that puts in place more effective and clear guidance.

The report stated that the Equality Act 2010 is not fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination regarding dress codes. It called for employment tribunals to be given the power to apply bigger financial penalties, with guilty employers required to pay compensation to every worker affected by their discriminatory rules.

Furthermore, it states a publicity campaign should be launched to ensure that employers know their legal obligation and workers know how they can complain effectively.

Following the debate, the government stated: “Employers are entitled to set dress codes for their workforce but the law is clear that these dress codes must be reasonable. Employers should not be discriminating against women in what they require them to wear.”

How can you ensure your practice conforms to the law in terms of equality?

At MDDUS, we regularly receive calls to our employment law advice line on issues regarding equality and discrimination in the workplace.

Some of these complaints could have been avoided if the practice had an up-to-date equality and discrimination policy and dress code policy that is integrated into the key HR functions such as recruitment, pay and training opportunities. A copy of this should be issued to employees when they join the practice so they are aware of their rights and benefits and to help prevent discrimination.

A clear and comprehensive dress code policy will cover uniforms, the requirement to keep them clean and presentable at all times and perhaps how often they are replaced. If uniforms aren’t provided, then it should be clear what clothing and footwear is and is not acceptable, perhaps giving some examples for clarity. Tattoos and piercings are more commonplace these days and should be accommodated and carefully considered unless there is a clear justification as to why they cannot.

Meanwhile, a recent TUC survey revealed that 52 per cent of women experience sexual harassment at work, although most choose not to report it. The sexual harassment reported by the majority of the 1,500 women surveyed included unwanted sexual advances as well as sexual comments about their bodies or clothes.