High heels and head scarves: dress codes & discrimination in the workplace

“Discriminatory dress codes remain widespread… the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work.” — Report of a British House of Commons Joint Committee.

In 1977, the British Employment Appeal Tribunal heard an unusual complaint from an aggrieved bookseller. Austicks Bookshops in Leeds had a policy that prohibited female workers from wearing trousers. One employee, Ms Schmidt, refused to comply. She was dismissed, and subsequently brought proceedings on the basis that the employer’s policy constituted sex discrimination.

In rejecting Ms Schmidt’s claim, Justice Nicholas Phillips recognised the expansive powers of an employer to determine appropriate dress code in the workplace. “As a general proposition,” he opined, “an employer is entitled to a large measure of discretion in controlling the image of his establishment, including the appearance of staff, and especially so when, as a result of their duties, they come into contact with the public.”

Read in 2017, the judgment in Schmidt seems rather antiquated. Certainly, the law has taken considerable steps over the intervening four decades to address such discrimination. Yet the dilemma faced by Ms Schmidt — comply with a sex-specific dress code or be dismissed — lingers to this day. Indeed, just last year professional services firm PwC found itself at the centre of a media storm after an outsourced receptionist in London was sent home for refusing to wear high heels. The furore led to a joint committee inquiry by the House of Commons, which found that clothing related
discrimination remained widespread in Britain and had not been adequately addressed by legislation.

There is no evidence to suggest that the situation is any better in Australia. This is not solely a matter of sex discrimination either. An employer’s ability to regulate employee dress standards, regardless of gender, remains unsettled. Questions of religious discrimination also intrude.

In March 2017, the European Court of Justice found that it was not discriminatory to fire a Muslim employee who insisted on wearing a head scarf contrary to a workplace policy prohibiting visible signs of religious belief. These issues are interrelated. This article will begin by discussing an employer’s power to prescribe and enforce dress codes in the workplace. It will then consider possible legal remedies available to aggrieved employees, located in discrimination legislation and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). Given the paucity of Australian case law in this area, reference to foreign  jurisprudence will be made where appropriate.

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John Wilson is the managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. He thanks Kieran Pender for his help in preparing this article. 

First published in Ethos.