Setback for employee in ‘collar and tie’ dress code case

The Government won an appeal against a civil servant who claimed that he had suffered sex discrimination because he was forced to wear a collar and tie at work. However the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) sent the case back to be heard by another tribunal.

Matthew Thompson worked for Jobcentre Plus in Manchester. He had formerly worked for the Benefits Agency, where there were relaxed rules on neckwear, but when it merged with the Employment Service, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) introduced a more prescriptive dress code which demanded ties and banned informal wear. Thompson complained that the requirement discriminated against men.

“It may not be the convention for women to wear a collar and tie, but the point I’m making is that a similar standard of business dress is not applied to women as it is to myself,” Thompson told the employment tribunal last year. The tribunal agreed and awarded him £1,000 compensation under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. His employers, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), appealed that decision. According to Thompson’s union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU), in the region of 8,000 Jobcentre Plus workers have now lodged such cases.
PCSU officer David Burke said that the DWP’s victory before the EAT was a technical one. “Unfortunately the EAT didn’t endorse [the previous ruling], but nor did it completely blow us out of the water,” he said. This week the union will meet with the DWP to come up with what Burke calls, a “gender neutral dress scheme” that can be approved by Jobcentre Plus workers.

The EAT pointed to “a number of flaws” in the original ruling. It concluded that it was “not for the Employment Appeal Tribunal to decide whether men have to wear a collar and tie in order to achieve the level of smartness which Jobcentre Plus required of both sexes”, and directed the case back to a differently constituted employment tribunal.
“The main question was: ‘What do men have to do to meet the standard of smartness as required of women if they don’t wear a tie?’” said Burke. “The problem with the Jobcentre Plus dress standard was that it singled out men and the only required item of clothing in the dress standard is for men to wear a collar and tie. By contrast, there was no requirement for women to wear part items of clothing.”

In this case, according to Burke the policy “enraged” many workers because they felt “there was no sense to it” as few had direct dealings with the public.