Kate Brooks
Partner, Solicitor & Head of Employment/HR Services
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Date Published:25 Jan 2017 Last Updated:13 Apr 2021

Get your heels on or go home – dangers of sexist dress codes in the workplace

Employment Law Advice

Is a dress code in the workplace lawful?

The legal position is that it is acceptable for an employer to have dress code/appearance requirements if it is as a result of a legitimate aim.

The courts and employment tribunals have recognised that pursuit of a professional appearance and/or health and safety are examples of legitimate aims, meaning that a dress code will be lawful.

However, dress codes can still amount to discrimination on the grounds of various protected characteristics e.g. sex, religion, disability and/or gender reassignment and employers should be aware of the risks, damage to reputation, and costs associated with such claims.

Treating a woman less favourably than a man amounts to sex discrimination.


Practical examples

Some employment tribunal case examples of when a dress code is and isn’t sex discrimination:

  1. requirement for men to have hair not below shirt collar length which did not apply to a woman = lawful and not sex discrimination.
  2. man required to wear shirt and tie and woman to dress appropriately = lawful and not sex discrimination.
  3. female waitress dismissed for refusing to wear a low cut top = sex discrimination. A man was not required to wear an equivalent uniform.


Opinion/Advice

Of course, the employer will only get in trouble with the law if the employee chooses to enforce their rights. There are lots of reasons why an employee may not actually bring a claim against an employer for example costs, risks and stress.

A prudent employer will not only consider the law but also the damage that a discriminatory dress code could do to their ability to be able to recruit staff effectively and win new clients. I do not think that we live in a world where professionals really think that these types of dress code are acceptable, I think it is like saying that it is acceptable to have a naked calendar up in the workplace – the days of such behaviour are well behind us.

Employers should be mindful that it is not only sex discrimination but for example a transsexual being prevented from wearing a dress where other women would be allowed to, could amount to discrimination because of gender reassignment.

My advice to employers is that they should tread very carefully when it comes to enforcing a dress code, and they should think really carefully why a dress code is important. The more flexibility in dress code, the better. That is not to say that employers cannot achieve a specific look in the workplace, they must think very carefully about how and why the look is important.

If you require any information on dress codes or discrimination, contact me on kate.brooks@ellisjones.co.uk