Following an inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into demands by employers for women to wear high heels at work (weekly LELR 517), the government has published guidance on workplace dress codes.

The publication, “Dress codes and sex discrimination – what you need to know” sets out how the law might apply in cases of sex discrimination where an employer requires female staff to wear, for instance, high heels, make-up, hair of a particular length or style, or revealing clothing.

Although dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of employment, clearly a dress code must not discriminate. So for instance a dress code would be unlawful if it required female employees to wear high heels, with all the discomfort and inherent health issues these can cause, because it treats women less favourably than men.

Having said that, however, dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical; they just have to be equivalent. This means there must be similar or equivalent rules laid down for both male and female employees.

The guide therefore advises employers to avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements. For example, any requirement to wear make-up, have manicured nails, wear hair in certain styles or to wear specific types of hosiery or skirts is likely to be unlawful.

On the other hand, a dress code that required all employees to “dress smartly” would be lawful, provided the definition of smart was reasonable. For example, a two-piece suit in a similar colour for both men and women, with low-heeled shoes for both sexes.

Any dress code should also have regard to health and safety implications; it should take into account the needs and interests of transgender staff; and should not prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.

When drawing up a dress code, the government advises employers to consult with employees, staff organisations and trade unions to ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and staff. Once agreed it should be communicated to all employees.

Gerard Airey of Thompsons Solicitors commented: “The government guidance on dress codes is welcomed. It is great to have confirmation that gender specific prescriptive dress codes would be unlawful, particularly with the examples provided. This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully employers will utilise this guidance to address any outdated dress policies which no longer comply. If such policies exist the trade unions should highlight this guidance to employers with a view to opening discussions about modernising these policies. This guidance should also be advanced before Tribunals to assist them in reaching their conclusions in these types of cases.”

Visit the government website to read the guidance in full.