All people who work at your company must be treated equally in terms of dress codes. That covers differences in gender, physical attributes, age, religion and anything else covered under the Equality Act 2010.

Read on for further explanation on the law on company dress codes.

Nicola Thorp was discriminated against for NOT wearing high heals. Photo: Daily Express

The Equality Act 2010

This Act of Parliament became UK law in 2010, but was brought up for review and debate during January 2017.

The debate arose from the large fallout of an agency receptionist in London being sent home, without pay, on her first day of work for refusing to wear high heels. A petition gained enough traction to be debated in the House of Commons.

“Far too many employers are still stuck in the past when it comes to dress codes. It is unacceptable that in 2017 bosses are still forcing women to wear painful, inappropriate shoes and uniforms. But with employment tribunals costing up to £1,200, many women can’t afford to challenge sexist policies. If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from being discriminated against or treated differently due to any of the following protected characteristics a person has/may have:

  • Age
  • Being transsexual or going through the process
  • Being in a marriage or civil partnership
  • Taking maternity leave or getting pregnant
  • Any disability
  • Racial characteristics (skin colour, nationality, ethnicity or place of birth)
  • Religious or Atheist beliefs
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

The Act gives people legal protection if they, as a result of any of these characteristics, are placed at a disadvantage, have certain needs which are not being met or end up being under-represented in work.

The Equality Act 2010 can be read in full here.

people dressed in work uniform
These business wear options show a variety of professional looking options, none of which discriminate against somebody's sex

Examples Of Potential Problems When It Comes To Workplace Dress Codes

Nicola Thorp, the receptionist mentioned above, was sent home without pay for not following company rules to wear a 2-4 inch high heeled shoe. The official reason for this rule was "to make staff appear professional."

But Thorp argued that her flat shoes were no less professional than 2-4 inch high uncomfortable heels and male employees were not subject to the same rules. This contravenes the protected characteristic of Sex (gender) under the Equality Act 2010.

150,000 signatories on her petition and two parliamentary committees agreed.

The same issue, discriminatory treatment of one Sex compared to another, often arises when male staff are required to wear a collar and tie or formal suits, but female employees are not.

This is such a troublesome area - how to dress "professionally" - because it's so subjective. Ask 10 people what the stereotypical female equivalent of the male's shiny shoes with a suit and tie, and you could easily get 10 different outfit suggestions.

Less of a grey area, but not uncommon when listening to TV and radio audience's anecdotal feedback to this news story, is that there are still companies which have quite specific dress code rules, which in practice only typically apply to women.

Also, there are still stories of companies putting rules in place for how employees should wear their hair and make-up (and even how often it should be reapplied).

So, How To Stay Compliant & What To Avoid

Make sure that you have a company dress code which does not treat anybody differently due to any of the characteristics mentioned at the top of the post.

As a company, it's important to provide equality and this guidance on remaining legal in terms of accommodating religious beliefs in the workplace will help cover the other characteristics too.

To have a dress code which is legally compliant, make sure that you:

Don't prescribe precise details for one characteristic type but leave another subjective and open to interpretation. E.g. "women must wear heels and men office shoes" or "men must wear a tie and women dress in a smart fashion".

Do speak openly and honestly with employees and consult them on draft dress codes to see if any issues crop up which you may not have thought of.

For example, do the men at your company know that high heels quickly become uncomfortable for many women? And how many employees know that studies have found prolonged wearing of heels is more detrimental to your physical health than just getting aching feet?

And don't forget that ambiguity can cause a range of issues. The Department for Work and Pensions v Thompson [2003] at the Court of Appeal EAT case set precedent that you cannot stipulate that men must wear ties and leave ambiguity as to what women must wear.

Also, make sure that you follow the outcome of the debate in the House of Commons and the findings of the High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes committee.

The best advice for how to make a dress code which is compliant is to follow the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) guidance to the High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes committee.

They advised employers to only employ a dress code if they believe the business needs one or will benefit from one. Employers must also be able to justify that certain clothing requirements are necessary for the business to operate - which is beyond rare.

I.E. If the way your employees dress for work is not impacting their ability to complete their performance for the company, why create a dress code in the first place?

Or if there is an issue, you should look into creating a uniform policy instead.

Read this post to see how to implement a uniform policy which complies.

Are PPE & Uniforms Different To Dress Codes?

Yes. For a start, PPE needs to be provided by the employer asking an employee to complete a task which requires protective clothing. And uniforms are compulsory clothing (even if there are options within that), so there is less ambiguity.

Similar non-discriminatory considerations need to be made when creating a uniform, and your choices may be reduced. However, a uniform could cut down on the potential for ambiguity in your workplace dress code.

Just remember: we are all different, but we are all equal.