‘High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes’: A Report by the House of Commons

Discriminatory workplace dress codes have hit the headlines recently.

It is lawful for an employer to require its workforce to follow a dress code.

This was upheld by the Court of Appeal in Smith v Safeway Plc [1996] which held that rules concerning appearance are not discriminatory if they impose a common principle of smartness or conventionality.

However such policies should be carefully drafted so that they do not give rise to unlawful discrimination claims on the grounds of a protected characteristic, including sex, religion, disability and gender reassignment.

In an effort to address unlawful discrimination, the House of Commons has produced a report, ‘High heels and workplace dress codes.’  This follows a much publicised allegation by a woman that she was sent home from her temporary assignment as a receptionist for wearing flat shoes. This was in breach of the employment agency’s dress code policy, requiring her to wear 2 – 4 inch heels at work.

The report was produced by the Petitions Committee, and the Women and Equalities Committee. It gives details of anecdotes and reports from female employees who were required to dye their hair blonde, dress in revealing clothes, regularly reapply make-up and wear high heels. The report has revealed that such policies have left women feeling humiliated and objectified.

Employees can bring tribunal claims on the basis of discriminatory dress codes. In Smith v Rees [2012], the Claimant, a waitress, was given a blouse which she considered was excessively tight and revealed too much cleavage. Upon complaining to her manager, she was accused of being ‘a prude’ and subsequently dismissed. An employment tribunal upheld her sex discrimination claim. The tribunal found that a male employee would not have been required to wear the same uniform.

The report stresses concerns that discriminatory dress codes affect young women in the workplace in particular. It urges Parliament to consider establishing further remedies for employment tribunals to award against any employer applying such discriminatory dress codes.

In general, employers should draft dress codes broadly, with the overall objective that employees appear smart, professional and appropriate for their roles. Employers should avoid very specific and detailed obligations, especially when these apply disproportionately to female employees.

Dominic Bonham