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Can an employer require female employees to wear make-up?

You might remember that in September we blogged about dress and appearance codes and the sort of issues which might arise when they are in place.

Last month the French state-owned rail operator SNCF was criticised for its brochure on new employee uniforms, which includes tips on how to look pretty for female employees. The guidelines suggest what make-up to use (including discreet beige to soft red lipstick and transparent, pastel pink or red nail polish), what perfume to wear (a light and subtle one) and how eyebrows should look (well-groomed). SNCF has rejected claims of sexism and discrimination, pointing out the beauty tips are simply guidance rather than requirements. They also give style advice to men, who are reminded that beards and moustaches are fashionable (provided they are kept clean and well-trimmed, of course).

This begs the question – can an employer require their female employees to wear make-up?

Possibly – but there’s a risk that it could amount to sex discrimination.

The ACAS guidance on dress codes recognises that an employer might have different requirements for men and women – for example, men might be required to wear ties, while women might be required to dress professionally. So long as the dress code isn’t more stringent for one than the other, the differences are unlikely to be discriminatory. But if a dress code puts women at a particular disadvantage compared to men, then unless that disadvantage can be objectively justified, a requirement to follow the dress code could amount to indirect discrimination.

As many women well know, beauty regimes can be very expensive and time-consuming – so there’s an argument that requiring women to fork out for cosmetics might be quite a stringent requirement in comparison to, say, requiring men to keep their beards well-trimmed.

Legal questions aside, there’s also the risk of sending the message that women should wear make-up to look professional – which probably won’t go down too well among staff and could be quite damaging from an employee relations point of view.


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