What not to wear? Workplace taboo tattoos and the wrong sized heels

It’s commonplace for employers and temporary work agencies to request their workers comply with a dress code that sets out what they can or cannot wear during working hours.  In most situations workers willingly comply, but what can happen when a dress code is ignored, challenged, or seen as a discriminatory expectation?  Two recent situations show where the law stands in dress code related cases.

Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist, was sent home without pay by the temporary work agency that supplied her to City based accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (‘PWC’) for not wearing heels of at least 2 inches throughout her 9 hour shift.  The dress code concerning heel height had been established by the agency as part of their personal appearance guidelines for temporary staff supplied to their corporate clients, and not PWC policy.  She has now started a government petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work – which she claims as outdated and sexist.

On the face of it, it’s not unlawful for an employer to have appearance guidelines as long as they are comparable for male and female employees, and the dress requirements for each gender do not have to be identical.   The Equality Act 2010 (‘EqA’) affords protection against discrimination on various grounds as ‘protected characteristics’ (which include sex and age) to protected individuals, which include workers and some self-employed contractors.  Employers also have a duty of care towards their employees with regards to health, including mental health, and safety and employers should also be mindful of this when setting policies.

Sean Green had a bold geometric pattern tattooed on his face.  He was 100% aware of the impact a tattoo on his face could have before having it done.  Soon after getting his tattoo Sean attended his work shift at a North Sea platform, to be informed by his manager that he was no longer being considered for promotion due to his bold face tattoo.

Tattoos are increasingly popular, however they do not appear as a protected characteristic under the EqA which means that it is actually lawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual who has tattoos.  The exception to this rule could be when the tattoo in question is connected to the individual’s religion or beliefs – which the claimant would need to prove.  Whilst employers and agencies can exercise the right as to what their dress code standards and rules are, they do need to have sound business reasons behind any dismissal due to a tattoo.

Temporary work agencies and employers need to check that their dress code policies are clear and reasonable to follow for employees, workers and self-employed contractors.

Lawspeed can help

Our employment services include:

  • Clear and reasonable policies for employees, workers and some self-employed contractors to follow
  • Robust contracts with hirers and agency workers




To compete or not compete? – Department of BIS calls for evidence on non-compete clauses
New case law widens who is or isn’t protected under the Equality Act 2010