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Short hair and sex discrimination – alarm bells ringing?

It is common for an employer’s dress code to feature different rules for men and women. In the case of Holdsworth v Cleveland Fire Authority, the Employment Tribunal had to decide whether a rule requiring men to have short hair constituted sex discrimination.

Cleveland Fire Authority (CFA) employed Mr Holdsworth as a firefighter. Its health and safety procedure provided that male employees had to have short hair, while female employees could have long hair (provided they tied it up). The policy made clear that it was crucial to ensure hair did not interfere with breathing apparatus.

After Mr Holdsworth grew a ponytail, his station manager reminded him of the policy and told him to get a haircut. Mr Holdsworth did so, but was told that his hair was still not short enough. He then got his hair cut again, this time extremely short. He then raised claims of direct sex discrimination and harassment, on grounds that he had been “demeaned”.

The Employment Tribunal dismissed Mr Holdsworth’s claim. It held that it is permissible for an employer to promote a “conventional” image in dress and appearance policies, even if this entails different rules for men and women. It also concluded that had a female firefighter failed to comply with the policy, CFA would have treated her in the same way as it treated Mr Holdsworth.

This case illustrates that rules on dress and appearance which make distinctions between the sexes can be non-discriminatory. It is important to be careful on this subject, however, particularly as several religions have precise rules about appearance and dress.

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