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Report Highlights Workplace Dress Code Equality Issues

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Report Highlights Workplace Dress Code Equality Issues

Report Highlights Workplace Dress Code Equality Issues
February 22
10:44 2017

Alan Delaney low res cropThe House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee has issued its High Heels and workplace dress codes report, highlighting widespread discrimination when it comes to what employees may wear at work. With uniforms and dress codes common in the catering and hospitality sector,  Alan Delaney assesses the dangers of discrimination…

Why did the Committee investigate high heels?

The review was prompted by a petition signed by more than 150,000 people following the controversial sending home of an agency worker by accountancy firm PwC last summer for not wearing high heels. The committee didn’t just look at that case or limit its remit to footwear, and concluded that discriminatory dress codes are widespread and that the existing law is not fully effective in preventing this.

Do dress codes fall within the provisions of the Equality Act 2010?

Yes, but the problem appears to be more with the lack of legal claims pursued in relation to outdated gender-specific requirements. This is surprising, given the recent headlines we have seen in relation to these issues. At the end of last year, for example, London’s Dorchester hotel found itself in the firing line over an alleged list of ‘grooming rules’ for female staff. These allegedly included: no oily skin; no hair on legs (even if wearing tights); full make-up and manicured nails. From what was reported, there would seem potential grounds to argue that female staff were required to comply with more onerous requirements than male counterparts, pointing to possible direct discrimination.

Is it just women who are affected by dress code discrimination?

A discrimination claim is open to either men or women on the ground of sex where there is less favourable treatment. Some years ago, a male employee at the then Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) successfully challenged a policy that required him and his male colleagues to wear shirts and ties as being more onerous than the requirements on his female counterparts. While the DWP successfully appealed that decision, it altered the dress code for all staff in the wake of the publicity given to the case.

Of course, dress codes may also discriminate on religious grounds. Two significant decisions are expected from the European Court of Justice this year that concern bans, on religious grounds, of head scarves and other coverings for women at work. It is hoped these cases will provide employers with further guidance on what is and is not appropriate in terms of dealing with religious dress in the workplace.

Chefs’ whites and uniforms for waiting staff are common in catering. Could firms be sued?

Employers can impose dress code requirements – including banning religious attire – but must to be able to justify them based on genuine, proportionate and legitimate business needs. As previous cases involving the wearing of a visible crucifix have shown, while a requirement imposed for health and safety reasons might be justified, it is unlikely that seeking to ensure a smart and consistent corporate image will be sufficient.

Many hospitality operators seek to present a certain image to the world, which is fine where it is justified and the rules are not more onerous for one gender than for the other. However, the risks of getting this wrong are also significant and could include liability for unlawful discrimination in addition to damaging publicity, both of which can take their toll on a hard-earned reputation.

Alan Delaney is Director of Employment, Pensions and Immigration at Maclay Murray & Spens LLP.

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Catering Scotland

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