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New Guidance for Employers on Dress Codes and Sex Discrimination

The UK Government Equalities Office has recently announced new guidelines for employers on implementing dress codes to avoid sex discrimination at work.

The guidelines suggest that when policies on clothes or uniforms are an essential part of employer’s terms and conditions of employment, then similar standards of dressing must be maintained for both men and women.

What are your responsibilities as an employer?

It is common to find dress codes being an essential part of the terms and service of employees. Whilst there can be a myriad of ways to achieve a professional look amongst your staff, it is important to ensure that your dress code standards do not discriminate between men and women. The policies can obviously not be the same, but have to be similar.

This basically means that any treatment, less or more favourable to either of the genders, can be categorised as direct discrimination. If any dress code of women that leads to harassment by colleagues or customers can therefore be deemed as unlawful.

It is suggested that employees avoid gender specific requirements unless absolutely necessary. A dress code that requires all employees to dress up “smartly” is reasonable, but asking women to have well-manicured nails, a certain hairstyle, skirts and high heels, but no equivalent requirements for men will be considered an unfair treatment.

An ideal code would be a smart two-piece suit for both genders with low heel shoes. It would be a good idea to revise your dress codes if the current dress codes appears to be discriminating. Doing so by consulting with trade unions, employees and HR department is a good idea, as it ensures the new dress code is agreed and considered acceptable to all employees.

Health and Safety

When deciding the dress codes, employers should keep in mind implications on health and safety. For example, a particular type of shoes as a part of a dress code should be deemed safe and the staff should not be more prone to slips and falls wearing them.

Having said that, there have to be reasonable adjustments when it comes to dress codes for employees with special needs. This is mandatory by law under the Equality Act 2010 other than a general human consideration.

Transgender staff

If you have employees who identify as transgender working in the organisation, they should be allowed to follow the dress code of the organisation, in a way they feel that matches their gender identity.

Dress codes and religious symbols

UK is known to be an integrated society and well known for its religious tolerance. Employers must be flexible and should not force a dress code that affects an employee’s religious beliefs, unless it interferes with an employees work.

Your rights as an employee

If you feel your organisation’s dress code is discriminatory, it is suggested that you speak to your manager and explain your reasons. If you do not get a positive response, or if you are criticised or penalised for speaking up, you can follow your company’s HR policies, or seek guidance from your trade union leaders. If the issue does not get resolved informally, you can contact an employment law solicitor for further advice.