In customer facing roles especially, good hygiene is expected. But when do rules on grooming become discriminatory? This case highlights the dangers.
When is it OK to start laying down the law to employees about their grooming and personal hygiene?
A recent case at a luxury hotel in the UK may expose the employer to legal action, according to an article published at The Guardian over the weekend. A leaked list of grooming rules from The Dorchester has legal and union experts warning the policy could well expose the hotel to lawsuits by employees.
The list, which was leaked to the media after it was emailed to employees, advises female employees not to turn up to work with “oily skin, bad breath or garish makeup.” They were also encouraged to shave their legs, ensure their fingernails were manicured and to avoid body odour.
Much like issues surrounding dress codes and physical appearance, the incident prompts the question: when does company policy veer towards discrimination? And how does HR ensure that a reasonable grooming code that’s appropriate to the work being done does not indirectly discriminate against an employee?
The hotel’s recommendations, according to legal experts and industry groups, expose the business to claims of discrimination based on gender, race and religion.
For example, people of different ethnic backgrounds may not be able to comply with certain requirements, based on skin and hair type. Similarly, religious beliefs may occlude other employees where the removal of body or facial hair may not be acceptable.
And as Dave Turnbull, a regional officer at Unite, Britain’s biggest union, says, “there may be disability issues linked to this as well, for example skin conditions or allergies to certain types of makeup.”
Furthermore, in the case of workers at the Dorchester, staff are on low basic pay and are often reliant on elements such as tips or service charges to top up their earnings, says Turnbull.
“The cost of makeup, beauty treatments and compliance with dress code requirements can be extremely expensive and is never factored in by an additional allowance of any sort,” he says. This could easily place employers at risk of sex discrimination, as male employees are not expected to shoulder the same expenses.
In Australia, workplaces are governed by The Fair Work Act 2009, which states that workers cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their race, sex, mental or physical disability or religion. In addition each state runs an individual anti-discrimination commission with which organisations must comply.
For HR professionals, it’s essential that their grooming policies comply with both to ensure that obligations to employers are met.
“If I was the employer I would ask why it is that customers are complaining,” says Aaron Goonrey, Partner at Lander & Rogers Lawyers. “If the directive is purely based on the objectification of the women – in terms of being ‘pretty,’ then that’s grounds for discrimination.”
In his opinion, “it doesn’t look good” for the Dorchester as their directive appears to have singled out women. “If you’re just targeting women with your policy, then that’s a problem.”
What do you need to consider when developing a grooming policy?
– Dress codes and grooming codes must apply to men and women equally, or reflect an equivalent code.
– Dress codes and grooming codes should be reasonable and proportionate in nature, with particular reference to the kind of work being carried out. For example, employers need to tread carefully when it comes to grooming recommendations that might interfere with their right to be protected from discrimination based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, age, or religion among others.