The topic of dress code is a tricky area for businesses to navigate, fraught with potential issues of discrimination.

It is reasonable for an employer to ask its employees to adhere to a dress code or uniform such as: corporate attire, or protective clothing that adheres to occupational health and safety regulations.

However, employers should be mindful when implementing dress codes to ensure that they do not discriminate.

A British branch of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) came under fire recently after sending home a temporary receptionist who arrived at work in flats, with the dress code requiring she wear 2 -4 inch heels.

After the uproar caused by the story, PwC were forced to assure the public the dress code was that of the employment agency who hired the receptionist and not their own.

There has been an increase in public pressure in Britain to amend these outdated laws, with a petition calling on the UK Parliament to reform workplace laws being signed by more than 100,000 people, with the employment agency also now reviewing their dress code.

When is a dress code considered discriminatory?

 

The Australian Human Rights Commission states that discrimination is against the law if a person is treated unfairly because of a protected characteristic, such as his or her race, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

In the context of a company imposed dress code, they could be argued to be discriminatory if the dress code singles out some employees because of certain personal characteristics, such as gender.

The PwC incident is a demonstration of a set of conditions that are applicable only to female members of the staff, with the male staff obviously not met with the same expectations of dress.

Luckily, there are protections available for Australian women to protect them from outdated and sexist dress code demands.

Do I have any protections under the law?

 

If an employee were requested to wear high heels at work and there is a uniform as such that’s imposed, they are able to make a complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

It is widely accepted through Australian workplaces that there is nothing to prevent employers from setting uniform standards and require their employees to comply, however, the direction must be reasonable.

If the men employed at the company are not asked to adhere to the same dress requirements as female employees, then a woman can basically claim she is being discriminated against in the workplace based on gender.

When is a dress code considered reasonable?

 

If a dress code has been well thought out and does not discriminate against any of its employees, it can be deemed reasonable.

Clear and reasonable policies may be implemented by a company or HR team, but they must be communicated and agreed to by all staff members.

It is only then that if an employee refuses to wear the item of clothing, employers may then take steps to terminate their employment.

Unfair dismissal laws apply in this situation if an employee is not issued proper warnings and consulted regarding the issues.

If your workplace has a discriminatory dress code we recommend seeking legal advice.

Bianca Mazzarella

Bianca Mazzarella

Bianca Mazzarella is a lawyer at McDonald Murholme.
Bianca Mazzarella
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