In May 2016, a petition started by receptionist Nicola Thorpe hit the headlines, calling for the law to be changed on female dress codes after staff agency Portico sent her home on her first day at a corporate finance company for not wearing high heels.
Portico’s list of demands for female employees has since been revealed to include, “Makeup at all times (unless for medical reasons) with a minimum of light blusher, lipstick or tinted gloss, mascara eye shadow, light foundation/powder”, alongside no visible hair roots and high heels – a request which could cause health issues in the long term.
Whilst dress codes are legal, and in some public or client-facing roles are quite understandable, the extreme demands made on female staff in this list served to highlight a serious problem with sexism embedded in the workplace.
Nicola Thorpe’s petition was signed by more than 150,000 people before MP’s took up her cause. Two commons committees gathered evidence from hundreds of female employees who had experienced discriminatory dress codes such as particular makeup, hairstyles or short skirts – with no similar requests made to men – resulting in a UK parliamentary report, which was published on 25th January 2017 and has called for an overhaul of current equality laws.
The joint report, High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes, from parliamentary committees for Petitions and for Women and Equalities, says: “The government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. We call on the government to review this area of the law”.
So, what is the current law?
Employers can implement a dress code to ensure that employees are dressed appropriately for the job at hand. They can be asked to wear health and safety attire, to cover up visible tattoos, or keep hair tied back to avoid safety issues. However, a policy must be justifiable as being for a more substantial reason than just stylistic preference.
However, gender discrimination is unlawful – so whilst it may not be outright illegal to ask a woman to wear high heels for work, it is unlawful to treat women less favourably than men. If there are no corresponding appearance rules for male employees, applying image regulations to women would constitute sex discrimination.
An employee can raise a formal or informal grievance with their employer.
Laws seem set to tighten in the near future, and if you’re overdue an HR overhaul this could be the perfect opportunity to update your paperwork, including ensuring you have the protection of a relevant Management Liability and Employment Practices Liability policy in place.