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Chopping the Mop

Dress codes can be surprisingly emotive. In the last few years we’ve heard of a number which have been challenged in connection with a protected characteristic. Most recently, the European Court of Justice was asked to rule about British sirways banning of visible jewellery, including crucixes in the case of Eewida, finding that British Airways’ dress code discriminated against her as a Christian.

Now another dress code case has comer to the employment tribunal, this time dealing with haircuts and gender discrimination.

The employee in question, Ian Holdsworth, was a fire fighter who kept his hair short in the early stages of his career. However, over time he decided to grow his hair longer. The employer’s policy on fire fighters’ dress and appearance stated that in order to provide a safe system of work, men are required to have short hair, and women with long hair to have it pinned up. After reading this policy, Mr Holdsworth decided to cut his hair short. The policy made reference to the importance of hair not interfering with the effectiveness of breathing apparatus.

After a while, Mr Holdsworth decided to grow his hair long again, keeping it in a pony tail when he was on duty. During an evening shift in August 2011, the station manager challenged Mr Holdsworth about his hairstyle, and told him to get his hair cut. Whether it was a temperate discussion or more vigorous confrontation is not known, but Mr Holdsworth got his hair cut as a result. When he returned to work, he was told that it wasn’t short enough and so he got his hair cut again – this time extremely short. Mr Holdsworth thought the way he had been treated was ‘unacceptable’ and felt he had been ‘demeaned’. He submitted complaints of direct sex discrimination and harassment to the employment tribunal.

The tribunal referred to Smith v Safeway plc and Dansie v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, and concluded that it’s permissible for employers to promote a “conventional” image in dress and appearance policies. Taken as a whole, the employer’s policy was considered to be “fair-handed” between the sexes. The sex discrimination claim was therefore rejected and the tribunal concluded that the employer would not have treated a female fire-fighter who had not complied with the policy any differently.

The harassment claim was rejected on the basis that, although Mr Holdsworth felt that he had been subjected to “unwanted conduct”, the manner in which he was challenged about his haircut did not relate to the protected characteristic of his sex.

As this case demonstrates, a policy that requires employees to adopt a “conventional” or “uniform” appearance and which has different rules for men and different rules for women (in relation to hair length) is not necessarily discriminatory on the grounds of gender.

If you’d like help revising your dress code or policies, get in touch.

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