Women can be required to wear high heels or other specific items of clothing in the workplace provided men are subject to equivalent rules, according to the government, which has rejected the opportunity to introduce new legislation on dress codes.
Despite recommendations from parliamentary committees that had called for stronger laws, the government said it planned only to issue guidelines that would help employers manage issues arising from workplace dress codes.
That means businesses can continue to make it a requirement for female employees wear heels, for example, providing it is considered a job requirement and men are made to dress to an "equivalent level of smartness”.
The new guidance comes in the wake of a petition signed by more than 152,000 people to ban compulsory high heels at work. It will consider controversial dress code requirements, including: footwear, hair styles, skirt length, hosiery, make-up, low-fronted or unbuttoned tops, and manicures.
There will not, however, be any changes to the law on the matter as the government believes existing legislation is “adequate” and already prevents companies from gender-based discrimination.
That news dismayed campaigners who felt that the requirement for ‘equivalent smartness’ was too vague and did not reflect the lack of genuine equivalence between male and female attire.
The issue came to the fore when PwC receptionist Nicola Thorp, who was employed through agency Portio, was sent home from work without pay for refusing to wear high heels in May 2016.
Thorp was later called to present evidence before the women and equalities committee, during which the government acknowledged that awareness among workers and bosses of the law was patchy, adding that some employers “knowingly flout the law”.
The committee later released a report saying that “discriminatory dress codes remain widespread”, and that “the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work”.
In response, the government has confirmed that it will be working on new guidelines in conjunction with the Government Equalities Office, Acas, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.
Sophie Whitbread, senior associate at Penningtons Manches, agreed that current laws were adequate, but said employers remained unlikely to actively consider whether their dress code was discriminatory.
“What is needed is increased awareness in the workplace and in society as a whole. That is not necessarily achieved by more legislation and is likely to require a sustained period of re-educating society and employers. Whether the new government guidance is a good first step in the right direction remains to be seen,” Whitbread said.
Employers should have clear but not too detailed dress codes setting out their expectations, said Sarah Ozanne, employment lawyer at CMS Cameron McKenna, who suggested that organisations consult with staff so that they “feel involved in the development of the company policy, and keep the policy under review over time to make sure it is still relevant”.
Dr Vandana Nath, lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resource management at King’s College London, said balance was key when it came to enforcing workplace dress codes: “While organisational attitudes in relation to dress and appearance should reflect ongoing changes in society, it is important for employers to also maintain appropriate standards of behaviour in the workplace.
“The adoption of a laissez-faire attitude to dress might be perceived as adopting a more enlightened approach. However, an ‘anything goes’ policy could be too radical and present a variety of unintended problems. Organisations need to strike a balance between allowing workers freedom of expression and protecting the wellbeing and dignity of others.”
Employers should review dress code provisions with discrimination in mind. Alan Delaney, director of employment, pensions and immigration at Maclay Murray & Spens, said it is was advisable to “consult with employees or their representatives on any requirements before implementing new policies” to help minimise any legal and reputational risks.
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