The story of a female receptionist being sent home on her first day for refusing to wear high heels recently went viral. What is the legal position on employers applying appearance rules in the workplace?
The courts have established that having different dress policies for men and women is lawful provided they impose a common requirement for smartness and ‘conventional’ attire. So in one case, a male employee failed in his claim that it was sex discrimination to force him to wear a collar and tie when female employees were not subject to the same requirement.
High heels are more dubious because they are widely perceived as making women look ‘sexier’ or more feminine. A dress code requiring women to wear high heels is arguably discriminatory, because the equivalent rule for men would not involve this degree of sexualisation.
The key purpose of an appearance code is to ensure that an organisation’s staff present a smart and professional corporate image. It should be possible to achieve this without resorting to outdated stereotyping of either gender.
Michael Burd and James Davies work at Lewis Silkin LLP solicitors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org