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Dress Codes in the Workplace: What Does the New Guidance Mean?

New guidance on dress codes in the workplace has been published in a bid to clarify the law on when employers are justified in imposing different dress requirements on men and women.

Uncertainty around these requirements prompted the Women and Equalities Select Committee, who have debated the issue in Parliament, to request new, clearer guidance, released earlier this month by the Government Equalities Office.  


Can my employer tell me what to wear?

Employers are permitted to have different dress codes but the guidance reminds employers that the standards imposed should be appropriate for the role and equivalent and should not be more onerous for women to comply with than men, or vice versa. Among the most common examples where employers have fallen foul of the law include telling women to wear high heels, makeup or to have manicured nails.

Where an employer requires female staff to wear high heels but places no equivalent requirement on men, this is likely to constitute direct discrimination. It may be perceived as a pressure to dress provocatively, have the effect of objectifying women and could increase the risk of harassment, quite apart from the discomfort or damage wearing heels can cause. An employer who does this is more likely to fall foul of the law than, for example, a requirement for men to wear ties which is typically thought of as smart business dress.     

You may have grounds to complain if your workplace dress code contains any of the following:

  • A requirement to dress provocatively;
  • A requirement completely unconnected to what would be perceived as normal for the type of work you do;
  • A prohibition on manifesting your cultural or religious freedom;
  • If you are trans, being required to dress in a way that you do not identify with;
  • If you are disabled, being required to dress in a manner that hampers your work because of your disability;

Best practice is to have a gender neutral policy where possible. If a company requires staff to wear smart business dress, it should give men and women the flexibility to manifest that in clothing and footwear that suits them whilst maintaining a corporate image.  

What should I do if I have a problem?

If you have been told to dress in a certain way that you feel is discriminatory, you could raise this with your manager if you feel able to do so. You may also want to speak to your HR department or trade union representative. Help is available from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) or you may decide to seek legal advice specific to the facts of your case, especially if you feel it is impacting on you and your work. The guidance confirms that nobody should be adversely treated for raising an equality issue and, if an employer were to do so, this is unlawful victimisation.

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