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Workplace dress codes brought to heel by Australia’s discrimination laws

Posted by | May 20, 2016 | Workplace

Via The Sydney Morning Herald : Forcing a female employee to wear high heels or imposing any other gender-specific dress codes at work could breach Australia’s discrimination laws, experts have warned.

A case in London this week has gained global attention and raised legal questions, after a 27-year-old receptionist complained she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high-heeled shoes. She had turned up for a temporary job as a receptionist and greeter, a role that required her to walk all day.

Legal experts in Australia said enforcing a dress code for female employees to wear high heels risked violating state and federal equal opportunity legislation, and could land employers in strife.

“An employer can set a standard of dress in the workplace as part of a reasonable and lawful direction; for instance, requiring someone to wear high-quality business attire,” Herbert Smith Freehills employment partner Tony Wood said.

“But a problem arises if an employer identifies a gender-specific requirement … so, in this situation, directing females to wear high heels would seem to be offensive to most of Australia’s anti-discrimination legislation.”

And it may not only be women who could claim gender discrimination over employer-dictated clothing standards.

In a previous case in the United Kingdom, a male employee won the right not to have to wear a tie to work after arguing at an industrial tribunal that it amounted to discrimination. His claim was upheld because it was determined that women in his workplace were not subjected to the same rigorous dress rules.

Australia’s Human Rights Commission advises employers that rules regarding workplace attire could be discriminatory if they single out certain employees for different treatment because of their background, personal characteristics or gender.

Kerryn Tredwell, a partner at law firm Hall & Wilcox, said employers in the UK and Australia had the right to direct employees about what is and is not appropriate work attire, “but it has to be reasonable”.

She said dress codes could result in discrimination claims if an employee was treated “less favourably” than a colleague of the opposite sex as a result.

“It is only where the dress code could result in some disadvantage… on the grounds of sex discrimination, or if it’s disability discrimination,” she said.

Ms Tredwell said the female receptionist’s employer could argue there was no less-favourable treatment because there is no male equivalent for high heels and “society appreciates there are different dress conventions for me and women”.

But if being required to walk around in high heels all day risked aggravating a condition, such as a foot or knee injury, the woman “could potentially have a disability discrimination claim”, she said.

Maurice Blackburn’s Alex Grayson said the UK case highlighted that discrimination was still rife in the workplace.

“Sending someone home because they are not willing to wear high heels would definitely be discrimination … the detriment is removing them from work and they could have a good unfair dismissal claim,” she said.

“We aren’t in the 1950s anymore and women shouldn’t be required to wear high heels in the workplace.”

Source : co

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