You may remember the recent controversy about whether receptionist could be required to wear high heels. Every case is different, of course. But according to the linked story in the Metro, an employment tribunal has awarded £3,500 in favour of a waitress who was told to wear a skirt and make up so that she would be “easy on the eye”.

The tribunal, according the Metro, found that the bistro had discriminated against the employee because she was female and that the conduct amounted to harassment in that the work environment was degrading and humiliating.

I have not seen the actual judgment so I cannot comment on how the findings were phrased. It was probably direct discrimination. The question would have been: did the employer treat her less favourably than a comparable male employee? I doubt that a male employee would be asked to wear a skirt or makeup. Evidently she didn’t like being asked to dress that way, so it was less favourable treatment.

As you will note, harassment was also found, and its principal elements are repeated in the Metro article: unwanted conduct related to her gender created a degrading and humiliating environment.

As to the amount awarded, it looks like this bistro has only been lightly fried: awards for injury to feelings are normally between £5,000 and £30,000, rather than the £2,500 awared here (plus £1,060 in lost wages).

No doubt businesses who wish to portray a certain image will not like this news. Nor will businesses who, however moral themselves, know that their customers do like the staff to look a certain way. It is worth mentioning that in a very different context, two related cases are currently making their way through the European Court of Justice – an advisor to that court has said that businesses who regularly face the public and wish to portray a secular image, should be allowed to ban visible religious symbols; and we also await judgment on a case where clients of a business objected to a member of staff wearing a headscarf.

There will be difficult cases. But this case does suggest that employers should be cautious about clearly sex discriminatory dress codes, however well they accord with common conventions.

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