Last month saw the widely reported incident concerning a female receptionist who was sent home from work after reporting for duty, on her first day in the job, wearing flat shoes. She refused to wear the 2 – 4 inch heels allegedly required by the employer and was asked to leave. The employer said that they would review their personal appearance guidelines, following comments that such a practice could be discriminatory.
Uniform policies/dress codes/personal appearance guidelines (or whatever else you want to call them) throw up a number of employment law considerations. It is not uncommon for employers to impose rules on appearance. There can be a number of potential reasons for this. Maintaining a corporate image and health and safety objectives are among but a few of the reasons.
Be wary of discrimination
Employers are entitled to set required standards of appearance. They are also entitled to enforce these standards, for example, by reference to a disciplinary policy for non-compliance. However, it is necessary to be mindful of certain issues. In particular, employers must not discriminate in setting their “fashion” goal posts. In the scenario reported above, arguably, a requirement for women to wear sexy heels could offend against sex discrimination. A man would not be subjected to the same requirement. In addition, think of the health and safety angle. I’ve never worn a pair of high heels (honestly) but they look very uncomfortable. It is not controversial to suggest that being on your feet all day in high heels could have longer term health implications. Would such a policy give rise to a personal injury claim in the future?
Discrimination issues also arise in the context of employees who dress in a particular way for religious reasons. An employer who wishes to ban certain items of clothing will need to have legitimate business or safety requirements for doing so. For example, in one case, a nurse was not permitted to wear a religious cross on top of her uniform in order to protect the safety of patients. This was held to proportionate and was thus not discriminatory.
ACAS have issued a useful guidance covering some of these issues. It is available here.
If you are unsure of what you can can’t do in relation to workplace attire, take advice.