Our Knowledge

13.Jul.2017

Dressed for the weather

The UK has experienced record breaking temperatures in a recent heatwave. As a result, men across the country have found that uniform policies imposed on them are (whether in school or at work) have left them a bit hot under the collar. When temperatures in Britain soar past 30 degrees, how do boys and men respond when uniform policies ban them from wearing shorts? According to recent news reports – they wear dresses. 

However, underneath this witty British response lies a more important question – what exactly is the law on uniform policies and is it simply disguised gender discrimination?

A little over a year ago, a receptionist was sent home from work without pay simply for wearing flat shoes, and not the two to four inch heels stipulated in the uniform policy. This incident prompted both a nationwide and parliamentary debate on dress codes. However, the Government rejected any prospect of legislation on the matter but stated that it will be producing new guidelines on workplace dress codes. It’s unlikely the recent interest in dress codes will spark a “Made in Dagenham” or “The Full Monty” screen adaption but could the addition of the male voice to the debate on uniform policies prompt the Government to clarify what is and is not acceptable?

Uniform policies – what are the rules?
Employers are permitted to enforce a dress code that is appropriate in its requirements and reasonable in nature in the context of the job being done. Given recent events, perhaps the most relevant requirement of dress codes is that they must not discriminate against any protected characteristics (including gender) of the Equality Act 2010. In particular, a dress code must be fundamentally equal between both sexes though the exact requirements may differ. 

It is easy to see how a uniform policy could fall foul of anti-discrimination laws. Men and women, generally, wear different types of clothes. Consequently, the rather broad concepts of reasonableness, appropriateness and equal, though not exactly the same, uniform requirements leave the door open for potential claims of discrimination.  The advisory body Acas gives the example of a permitted difference in policy of women being required to wear “business dress” whilst men “must wear a tie”. To some, there is an irony in the fact that whilst the tie has been a symbol of power, status and entitlement for over 100 years, in 21st Century Britain, particularly on hot days, men could reasonably complain of detriment in being forced to wear one.

Direct discrimination will occur when, because of their gender, one sex is treated less favourably than the other. This issue has been at the centre of the high heel debate: given that smart flat shoes for women are an option, the requirement to wear uncomfortable high heels is potentially discriminatory treatment. The recent heatwave sparked the debate once more over the reasonableness of such policies – though this time it was men at the forefront. As men found their trousers were too hot, they pointed to the equality requirement of uniform policies. Whilst women were permitted to wear dresses, men were banned from wearing what they considered to be the comparator of shorts. To prove the point, young boys at a school in Exeter wore the skirts of sisters and friends in protest after being told wearing shorts was not permitted under the school uniform policy. In Watford, a hospital porter reported being told he would face disciplinary action for rolling up his trousers to three-quarter-length. Even further out, at Royal Ascot, this year strict rules for men in the royal enclosure were relaxed to allow removal of jackets on account of the weather. If these uniform requirements can be seen not just as slightly different rules, but as less favourable treatment because of gender, then they could be the basis for a direct discrimination claim. 

The future?
We will need to wait until the promised updated guidance is released to see what if any impact these protests have made. Regardless, employers should be aware of their uniform polices and take care not to discriminate. Common sense should prevail where possible as it is in everyone’s interest not to have uncomfortably warm employees. The concept of a ‘uniform’ is incredibly varied in practice – in a call centre environment there may be no uniform and a fairly relaxed dress code, in customer facing roles (such as cabin crew) you may expect employees to be in a full uniform, while in a professional office there may not be a uniform per se but employees are all expected to be dressed in smart workwear (where women may have more flexibility during a heatwave than men forced into suits). Employers may want to consider then how necessary a dress code is and the impact of relaxing the policy in extreme heat. If employees are involved in creating and amending uniform policies they are less likely to raise issues in the future. Finally, is the workplace too hot? Whilst there may not be a legal maximum, temperatures must still be reasonable and the health and safety of employees should be a concern. Otherwise, you may find employees take a more unconventional approach to their workplace uniform.