In the workplace, a dress code is traditionally enforced to create an image of professionalism through visual uniformity, to put employees at ease and avoid problems that could arise through inappropriate or unsafe choices in dress.
But, whilst implementing a clear dress code is widespread and often beneficial for employers, changing norms and increased diversity mean that it is not without its problems.
Even Parliament, steeped in tradition and ceremony, has its controversies over dress code. In early July, Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, announced that male MPs would no longer be required to wear a tie in the House of Commons. For many, the decision was received as Parliament moving with the times, but for others, namely Peter Bone MP, the move was a mistake. Bone argues that the decision should have first been discussed by MPs and added “Every time you dumb down the traditions of Parliament I think it reduces the esteem of Parliament.”
Much like John Bercow, employers often find themselves dividing opinion over their dress code decisions.
However, the divisions caused will frequently lead to far more serious repercussions than polite disagreements in the Telegraph; they can in reality cause PR nightmares, loss of staff and costly employment tribunal cases
In the remainder of the article we will discuss two examples of how the implementation of dress codes sparked fierce accusations of sex and religious discrimination.
Compulsory High Heels
In December 2015, Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist at PWC was sent home from work without pay because the flat shoes she wore did not comply with the company’s dress code. Female employees at the agency, Portico, were required to wear a heel of 2 to 4 inches in height and no less.
Outraged at the treatment that she, and many others, deemed sexist, Nicola Thorp started a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work.
Signed by over 150,000 people, Nicola’s experience struck a chord with both the press and general public. Expected to be on her feet for a nine-hour shift, Nicola saw the insistence that she wear heels as impractical and unsafe. She also went on to argue that dress codes should be in place to make female employees look professional, not glamorous or sexy.
Nicola’s assertions are backed up by the NHS website which states “wearing them [heels] all week at work may damage your feet, particularly if your job involves a lot of walking or standing”.
With Nicola’s story causing a widely broadcast (and for some unsatisfactory) governmental inquiry and a huge media debate over sexism in the workplace, Portico was forced to review its dress code policy and remove the requirement to wear high heels amid a media backlash.
On the topic of high heels in the workplace, Acas explains, with specific reference to Nicola’s experience, that
‘Although staff can be dismissed for failing to comply with a dress code, employers should be cautious when operating a dress code in this way. Any dress code should not be stricter, or lead to a detriment, for one gender over the other. It has been reported that wearing high heels can cause physical pain and even harm, and therefore may lead to a successful claim of direct discrimination on grounds of sex.’
Religious Dress in the Workplace
In March of this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies would be allowed to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols in the workplace.
Welcomed by secular groups and the political right-wing across Europe, the ruling would allow employers to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves, Jewish men from wearing kippahs, Sikh men from wearing turbans and Christians from wearing crosses.
The ECJ stressed that these religious symbols could only be banned as part of general policies that bar any and all religious and political symbols.
Supporters of the ruling argued that in the workplace, the aim of political and religious neutrality is perfectly reasonable, however, many from faith communities saw the decision as a message that their beliefs are unwelcome.
From the outset, concerns were raised that the ECJ’s ruling would disproportionately affect Muslim women and campaign groups argued that the measures the decision would allow could effectively exclude Muslim women from the workforce.
Media focus returned to the ECJ’s ruling earlier this week when the Independent reported on a woman who was suing her employers after ‘allegedly being ordered to remove her black headscarf because the garment had “terrorist affiliations”.’.
As the only female Muslim employee, she felt singled out and discriminated against by the request of her employer. According to the Independent, the former estate agent will bring her claim to an Employment Tribunal where her previous employer may be required to pay aggravated damages as well as loss of earnings, holiday pay and legal fees.
Speaking about the religious dress in the workplace, Acas explains that employers should ‘tread cautiously’ and that
‘Employers will need to justify the reasons for banning such items and should ensure they are not indirectly discriminating against these employees. Any restriction should be connected to a genuine business or safety requirement.’
The dress code has been around for centuries, taking many forms and is woven into the fabric of society. However, it can lead to extremely tricky situations for both employers and employees and cases in this arena are on the rise. Therefore, it is vital for employers to evaluate their dress code policies periodically to ensure they are up to date and non-discriminatory.
Undoubtedly, the Acas suggestion that employers ‘tread cautiously’ when dealing with dress codes is sensible advice in the current climate and moving forwards.