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Dressing down dress codes: can you force your employees to wear high heels?

3rd June 2016

Earlier this month a receptionist caused a media stir after she was sent home from work for refusing to wear two to four inch high heels. She started an online petition which has now attracted over 100,000 signatures and is due to be considered for parliamentary debate.

Dress codes are commonplace for most employers and are usually implemented for health and safety reasons, or because the employer is keen to promote a professional image. However, there is high potential for dress codes to amount to indirect discrimination. An employer will be liable for indirect discrimination where they apply a provision, criterion or practice which puts those with certain protected characteristics, such as sex, disability and a religious belief, at a particular disadvantage when compared with someone who does not share that characteristic.

However, if a dress code appears to discriminatory, an employer will not be liable if they can show that the requirements are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and there is case law which demonstrates that having different dress codes for men and women is not automatically discriminatory. The most powerful example of a legitimate aim is in order to comply with health and safety requirements, but this should nonetheless be proportionate. When determining whether the dress requirement is proportionate, the employer will need to balance their own interests against the disadvantage being caused to the employee.

Ultimately, it is advisable to have a clear dress code in place, however, employers should think carefully about its contents. It would be sensible, where possible, to have a certain degree of flexibility. Similarly, whilst it is not a strict legal requirement, both ACAS and the Equality and Human Rights Commission suggest that employers should consider consulting with their employees about uniform or dress requirements.

If you have any queries in relation to suitable dress codes or indirect discrimination, please do not hesitate to get in touch. 

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