You’ve probably seen the recent news story where a receptionist was sent home for refusing to wear heels to work – but was it reasonable, and was it lawful for her employer to do this? We take a look at workplace discrimination based on physical appearance to help you avoid making a costly mistake for your business…

Nobody wants to be judged for what they look like or how they choose to dress, but when it comes to the workplace, employees are only provided with statutory protection from discrimination relating to any protected characteristics they may have.

There are nine protected characteristics which are:

  1. Age
  2. Disability
  3. Race
  4. Religion or belief
  5. Sex
  6. Sexual orientation
  7. Gender reassignment
  8. Pregnancy or maternity
  9. Marriage or civil partnership

Dress policies and the law

Although no specific laws exist to limit what is and what is not acceptable in a dress policy, the protection of the Equality Act can extend to a workplace dress code if any protected characteristics are involved, such as religion or sex.

As part of a workplace dress code, an employer can require both men and women to meet a similar level of smartness. This may mean that they have to wear different pieces of clothing e.g. men may be required to wear a suit jacket and a tie, while women are not. Similarly, a dress code can require men to wear smart shoes, and women to wear heels as a similar level of smartness. This does not break the law.

Things to watch out for…

However, if an employer prohibits the use of clothing or jewellery which is part of expressing a certain religion, they must have a legitimate reason to justify this. For example, a dress policy may prevent employees wearing loose clothing due to health and safety concerns, if the employees work with machinery – and it’s important to treat all employees equally and apply dress codes to men and women alike, although there may be different requirements.

In the same way as clothes, employees with tattoos don’t have any express statutory protection, and a dismissal because of their tattoo doesn’t give them the right to make a claim against you.

That said, it’s worth being cautious as some tattoos may have a religious meaning or relate to an employee’s cultural background. In those circumstances, the protected characteristics of religion or race can be involved, and an employee can base their claim on them.

Any policies should be communicated to all employees to ensure that they know the standard which is expected of them. It’s advisable to obtain a signature from every employee to show that they’ve read and understood the policy: once this is done, any breach may be treated as outlined in the policy.