Farewell dated dress codes
In December 2015, Nicola Thorp was sent home from work, without being paid by her agency, when she arrived at her daily reception job wearing flat shoes.
Ms Thorp was informed that her shoes were not in line with the company’s dress code which required women to wear shoes with a heel between two and four inches. Ms Thorp started a petition for a change in the law which received over 150,000 signatures.
The House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee carried out a joint inquiry, the results of which were published in a report on 25 January 2017 (the “Report”). The Report made three primary recommendations:
- that the government should review this area of the law;
- that more effective remedies should be available against employers who breach the laws in this area; and
- detailed guidance and awareness campaigns should be developed to educate employers and employees going forward.
The inquiry concluded that if women are required to wear high heels, this is not only damaging to their health and wellbeing but it can also make women feel uncomfortable and sexualised. The Report criticised the current ACAS guidance on dress codes and recommended that updated guidance should be produced by ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive.
On 20 April 2017 the government published its response to the Report. The government responded to the recommendations for legislative change proposed that new guidance should be produced by ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive to clarify the law in relation to the test for “less favourable treatment” in discrimination cases.
The government did not believe that adaptation of the law itself was necessary. However they did propose the introduction of the following new legitimate aims:
- health and safety;
- establishing a public image;
- protecting a smart and uniform image; and
- restricting dresses or insignia which may cause offence.
The government concluded that the above aims were all reasonable recommendations and should therefore be considered when the updated guidance is produced. The government highlighted that it is keen not to create too prescriptive an approach to defining a “legitimate aim”. However, as legitimates aims are, by their nature discretionary, the detailed guidance (which will be produced by Summer 2017) will explain how discrimination and health and safety laws apply to the workplace dress codes.
The guidance will, in part, aim to address the issue of how to raise awareness of discrimination and dress codes and provide advice for workers of how to resolve disputes. The government have stated that there should not be an increase to financial awards given at the tribunal as the awards are compensatory, not punitive.
The government’s response makes it clear that whilst clarification as to dress codes (and preventing any ensuing discrimination) are encouraged, the favoured approach is to introduce more detailed guidance and heighten awareness through campaigns rather than making legislative changes. The government maintains its view that the law in this area is very clear and it is misunderstanding, as opposed to unclear legislation that leads to discrimination and litigation.
For more information contact our employment team on 0345 070 6000.