Workplace dress codes and sex discrimination: why men can't wear skirts in the office
Workplace dress codes

Workplace dress codes and sex discrimination: Why can’t men wear skirts and dresses to work in hot weather?

Posted on July 12, 2017, by Philip Sayers

When a man went to work in a dress, workplace dress codes made the news yet again. Coodes Solicitors Employment lawyer Philip Sayers comments on a story that captured the public imagination and raised important questions about an employer’s right to dictate the appearance of staff.

Blog updated July 2018

During a heatwave, a Birmingham call centre worker – Joey Barge – caused a storm on social media. A photo of his legs in navy blue shorts, accompanied by the question “If women can wear skirts/dresses at work can I wear smart shorts too?” attracted over 6,000 likes on Twitter. After he was sent home, he posted another selfie– this time he was wearing a dress.

This story caught people’s attention for obvious reasons. But aside from the entertainment it provided, it did raise some serious questions about workplace dress codes and sex discrimination. The question of how much control employers should have over their staff member’s wardrobes often makes the news. A petition to make it illegal for women to be required to wear high heels to work attracted over 100,000 signatures and resulted in a debate in Parliament.

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Why do businesses have dress codes?

Dress codes are usually the result of health and safety requirements (boots on a building site, hair tied back in a kitchen), but can also be related to the business needing staff to present a professional image. The latter is a bit more ambiguous and can lead to a lack of clarity among employers and workers.

What is the legal position on dress code policies?

The legal position is firstly that dress codes are permissible. Secondly, there can be gender distinctions, provided that the requirements for one gender are not deemed to be stricter than the other. The law also states that dress codes should be taken ‘as a whole’ rather than item by item.

Having different requirements for men and women will not amount to sex discrimination as long as the rules apply to conventional dress. In other words, it is fine to specify that men must wear smart trousers as long as there is an equivalent rule for women to dress smartly.

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Whatever the nature of the business, it is a good idea for employers to have a policy on dress in the workplace and keep it under review. If you are considering a new dress code or reviewing an existing policy, it is a good idea to question why you have certain rules in place. You are then in a much better position to explain the policy to staff. Crucially, if you have different rules for men and women, ensure you are not at risk of sex discrimination and, if in doubt, seek advice.                                                  

For more information on this or any Employment enquiries contact Philip Sayers, Employment and HR team, Coodes Solicitors on 01872 246200 or philip.sayers@coodes.co.uk

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