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Employers could face action for telling women what to wear

15 May 2018 By Miriam Kenner

New guidance said to be due later this month, prompted by high heels at work debate

The Government Equalities Office could issue new rules to employers on workplace dress codes by the summer.

The guidelines, expected later this month, would detail what employers are able to impose on their staff with regards to clothing, while clarifying that dress codes must have similar standards for both sexes, according to press reports.

The government announced last April that it would consider issuing new guidelines, with input from the Government Equalities Office, Acas, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, after parliamentary committees called for stronger regulation and a petition to ban high heels at work garnered more than 150,000 signatures

However, the government response to the petition and subsequent parliamentary scrutiny said it preferred not to change current discrimination law to impose penalties on employers forcing women to wear particular clothing or shoes to work, despite evidence that the practice was “widespread”. 

The government added that it believed the Equality Act 2010 was “adequate” to tackle employers’ discriminatory dress practices. This was despite a January parliamentary report finding that the Equality Act was “not yet fully effective” in preventing such discrimination.

Meanwhile, the women and equalities committee found that such dress code demands remained commonplace among employers. It said tougher penalties on businesses were required to counteract the continuing workplace requirement on women to dress in a certain way.

The high-profile petition was sparked by a woman sent home because she refused to high heels at work. Nicola Thorp said she was sent home from a new job at PwC after staff agency Portico required female employees only to wear high heels “between two and four inches high”, and urged the government to change the law. She had refused to change out of her flat shoes.

An Acas spokesperson told People Management: "Acas regularly revises its advice to reflect the latest developments in employment law – and we will update our guidance on any changes that come into effect in relation to dress codes at work."

The conciliation service’s guidance, outlined on its website, describes dress codes and appearance at work as increasingly “more important in the workplace”.

It said this partly resulted from “legal cases being highlighted in the media” and  “uncertainties among employers and employees about what dress code is acceptable”.

While a dress code can be used by employers to make sure workers are safe and dressed appropriately, it should relate to that job and be “reasonable” in nature, such as a requirement that kitchen workers tie back or cover their hair for hygiene, it advised.

Dress codes, however, must not discriminate in respect of the Equality Act’s protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. Employers may still have health and safety reasons for having certain standards.

“Standards can be different – for example a policy may state ‘business dress’ for women but may state for men ‘must wear a tie’,” Acas noted.

Acas warned after Thorp’s incident that any dress code “should not be stricter, or lead to a detriment, for one gender over the other”, particularly as “wearing high heels can cause physical pain and even harm, and therefore may lead to a successful claim of direct discrimination on grounds of sex”.

Employers must also make reasonable adjustments for disabled people regarding dress codes.

People Management contacted the Government Equalities Office for comment, but had not received a response at the time of writing. 

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