Beware workplace dress codes: Businesses risk fines, new MPs report says

By Hannah Thompson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Beware workplace dress codes: Businesses risk fines, new report says

Related tags: Discrimination, Bighospitality

Businesses and employers should ensure they know the rules regarding dress code and gender laws, or risk fines, a new government report has recommended.

The report, announced today (Wednesday) and named High heels and Workplace Dress Codes, comes from parliamentary committees for Petitions, and for Women and Equalities.

It warned that there were laws in place to prevent gender discrimination on workplace issues such as forcing female staff to wear high heels or re-apply makeup – where no equivalent rules existed for men ‒ and that the government should enforce these laws with fines for infractions.

It also recommended the launch of a publicity campaign to ensure that employers know their obligations, and that staff know their rights. It said that current laws should be enforced more stringently, with strong financial penalties levied for those at fault.

Today’s government report comes following a campaign from London receptionist Nicola Thorp, who was sent home from her work at accountancy firm PwC in December 2015 for refusing to wear high heels. She had been assigned the work by her then-employment agency.

The agency dress code had rules stating women should re-apply specific makeup, only wear nail varnish of certain colours, show no visible hair dye roots, and wear tights of a certain thickness.

Thorp’s parliamentary petition in protest of the incident – arguing that wearing heels all day would be bad for her feet and that male colleagues were not asked to follow equivalent rules ‒ gained 150,000 signatures, prompting the committee investigations.

A debate on the issue is expected in Parliament this March.


[Photo: Pexels / Staff dress codes should not discriminate on gender or disability bases, the law states]

Dress code: the law

The law shows that uniforms and dress code requirements may be acceptable for professional or safety reasons (such as covering hair in kitchens), but that staff must not be asked to dress a certain way – including their makeup, hair, shoes or nails – due purely to preferred style or gender, especially where equivalents do not exist for the opposite/other gender/s.

Alternatives must also be in place for staff whose disabilities would make the dress code impractical for them.

Discriminatory demands


[Photo: The Arch London]

The new report’s recommendations may be particularly applicable to hospitality businesses that require staff to wear a uniform, or serve members of the public.

In December 2016, London’s The Dorchester hotel came in for criticism after a dress code was allegedly sent to staff, apparently requiring women to – among other things - shave their legs, avoid body odour, and have manicured fingernails.

Many of the rules were alleged to apply only to women, with an anonymous employee reported in the Daily Mail newspaper as calling the rules “disgusting and like something out of the dark ages”.

In a statement released nationally at the time, The Dorchester said that the requirements were only sent to job applicants, not existing staff, and that its grooming standards matched those expected by any other high-end hotel. It added that its requirements did not apply exclusively to women.

In a statement to BigHospitality today, Jonathan Chamberlain, a partner at law firm Gowling WLG, said: "In one sense it is extraordinary that this is still an issue some 40 years after sex discrimination was outlawed. Unfortunately, though, it is many women's experience that unspoken conventions are still very powerful. While it is rare for an employer to tell a woman to wear high heels, it can be implied. It means that some organisations in practice have a very different dress code from the ones set out in the handbook."

"Not enforced as policy"


[Photo: Eva Mount, general manager, The Arch London hotel] 

In a statement to BigHospitality today, Eva Mount, general manager at 82-bedroom five-star hotel The Arch London, explained that it did not specify rules on heel height, or makeup.

“At The Arch London we encourage our team to look smart and stylish whilst supporting their individual style. We want our team to represent the business appropriately; we provide a contemporary, discreet, luxury service and whilst some of our team wear a uniform, they can choose certain aspects like heel height or shoe style as they prefer.”

“The same can be said for make-up, if our team wish to wear it they can, however we do not enforce this as policy.”

Karelle Lamouche, senior vice president at Ibis hotels UK and Ireland, which operates 90 hotels across the UK, said: "Whilst we have the necessary brand requirements, we have spent a lot of time working on having a dress code which allows our employees’ personality to show. We find that if people feel good in what they wear, they are happier and so make our guests feel more welcome. Also, 73 per cent of our workforce are millennial, so having a more informal and relaxed dress code, which in some cases means jeans and personalised Converse trainers, makes our staff feel comfortable in and outside the hotel."

When approached by BigHospitality on the issue of staff dress code, the Millennium Hotels and Resorts, and Hilton Hotels both declined to comment.

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