GEO have released their guidelines on dress codes
Government Equalities Office (GEO) newly published guidelines on dress code and sex discrimination in the work environment clarify that female workers should not be required to wear high heels at work.
Nicola Thorp, a receptionist working for a London based finance company, was sent home from work in December 2015 after she refused to wear high heels in line with her employer’s dress code. After her story generated a vast amount of publicity, Ms Thorp started a petition soliciting a change in legislation which would make it illegal to require women to wear high heels at work.
Consequently, the House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee conducted a public inquiry. Their report and associated recommendations were based on the conclusion that a requirement for female workers to wear high heels is ultimately detrimental to their health and wellbeing.
The government reacted to the Committee’s report by publishing an official response on 20 April 2017. Amongst others, its response highlighted that any recommendations suggesting legislative changes (such as the one for the provision of better remedies against employers who breach the law) were to be strictly rejected. However, given the public concern and elevated interest in the topic at hand, the government promised to publish an updated guidance in the summer of 2017.
On 17 May 2018, after a one year delay, the government published its long awaited guidance comprising of only six pages. This guidance sets out advice for: (1) employers on their legal responsibilities when creating and imposing dress codes; and (2) employees on their recourse when their rights are infringed by their employer’s policies.
Amongst others, the guidance suggests that an employer drafting (or revising) its dress code policy, should consider the following elements:
- the reasoning behind having a policy
- consulting their employees and their trade unions in order to ensure that the policy is acceptable to them
- the health and safety implications of every proposed dress code requirement
- avoiding having a code that could lead to harassment by colleagues or customers (such as any requirements for women to dress in a provocative manner
- avoid the prohibition of religious symbols unless they interfere with the employee’s work.
Most importantly, the guidance specifically advises against gender specific requirements. As such, a requirement to wear high heels, make-up or certain hairstyles is likely to be unlawful unless there is an equivalent requirement imposed for men.
The guidance for employees is disappointingly short. It merely suggests that an employee who considers that their rights have been infringed by their employer’s dress code should initially attempt to solve the matter informally (through their managers or their Human Resources representative). If their claim remains unresolved, they can always escalate it with their trade unions or the EHRC.
Despite the fact that the guidance has received very severe criticism (being called “bland and vague” and a “Janet and John” guide), it did however clarify the dress code controversy raised by Ms Thorpe’s case, namely: flat shoes should be universally permitted in a working environment, regardless of the employee’s gender.
Fore more information on this topic, or if you need help with drafting your employee dress code guidelines, please contact Millie Kempley. Or you can give us a call on 0345 070 6000.