SNCF were quick to point out that style advice was also given to men. Whilst this was true, men were simply informed, this time in blue font, that facial hair can be viewed as smart if kept clean and well-trimmed. Rather predictably, the pink and blue font colours just added to the allegations of sexism from social media commentators once the document’s content was published.
From a PR perspective, introducing a policy with the implied ethos that women need to wear make-up and ‘look pretty’ in order to appear professional is likely to result in negative press and unrest amongst female employees. From a personal point of view, the practice is demeaning and inappropriate in both a modern workforce and society in general. But what is the situation legally?
Well, under English employment law, the Acas guidance on dress codes allows subtle differences on account of gender. Note that word: subtle.
So while guidance requiring men to wear ties and women to dress professionally is generally acceptable, any actual requirement putting one gender at a particular disadvantage is likely to fall foul of sex discrimination legislation.
In the case of SNCF, the requirement for women to purchase potentially pricey cosmetics and perfume, alongside the need to spend extra time applying it, is likely to be seen as putting female employees at a particular disadvantage when compared to men simply being required to keep their beards and moustaches in neat condition. Unsurprisingly, the dress code was pulled by SNCF shortly afterwards on the grounds of the media’s “negative interpretation”.
Despite the above, implementing a dress code to ensure professional image and standards is not contrary to employment law if done properly. Different guidance can be given to men and women as long as it is reasonable and does not put one gender at a particular disadvantage.
Any employer wishing to introduce a dress code should first seek legal advice in order to ensure that it does not place one gender at a particular disadvantage or, in the event that it would, that it could be objectively justified on certain grounds.