The current position on dress codes under UK employment law is relatively clear: an employer is allowed to impose a dress code on its employees. But usually this will be put in place for health and safety reasons, or to promote a particular image, for example, of smartness and efficiency. So as long as everyone is treated in the same way, then a dress code is fine.
However, a dress code must not be discriminatory on protected grounds such as gender or religious belief, and disabled employees have the right to have adjustments made to alleviate disadvantage. I’m guessing your boss hasn’t told your male colleagues to wear high heels and make-up and in this day and age, they aren’t necessary to be smart. For that reason, the instruction is likely to be unlawful sex discrimination.
You’re not alone however. In a recent survey we [Slater and Gordon] conducted, we found that 86% of women had felt pressure over their appearance at work, with 7% of women being told by bosses they preferred them to wear high heels while in the office or with clients, because it made them “more appealing”.
Many women have been told to dress more provocatively and sexily – with almost 90 per cent of those pressured to dress in that way feeling their career might suffer if they didn’t comply. The research showed that the finance sector and hospitality were the worst offenders. That certainly matches my experience of acting for women facing requests like these, most of whom have worked in the Square Mile. That said, there is a backlash against any employer imposing unreasonable and discriminatory dress codes and even if individuals decide not to take their cases to an employment tribunal, naming and shaming on social media can often force employers to take action and change their policy more quickly.
Earlier in October, we saw a pretty extreme example when an advert for a PA asked for a candidate with “a classic look, brown long hair and b-c cup”. The advert has been widely condemned by equality campaigners as well as across the Twittersphere as being straight out of the 1970s, but the agency in question continues to try to defend it on the basis that the employer had a particular dress in mind that he wanted the PA to wear. The request appears to most of us to be a pretty extreme example but maybe that agency was just silly enough to put the request in writing. I’m sure there are still plenty of individuals out there making recruitment decisions at least partly influenced by looks and appearance.
The obvious answer to your boss’s request is that being good at your job and giving your clients good service is what will help you keep them, rather than high heels and make-up. Hopefully one day we’ll live in a world where everyone understands that to be the truth.
Julie Morris is a partner at Slater and Gordon