Want to work at the Dorchester? Shave your legs and get a manicure

The Dorchester Hotel has received widespread criticism over a ‘grooming list’ given to its workers.

According to the list, female staff cannot come to work with oily skin, bitten or chipped nails, bad breath or body odour. Apparently the policy tells staff shave their legs, even if they are wearing tights, and recommends that they go for regular manicures and wear a full face of makeup (except for garish make-up, which is prohibited).

News reports allege that the policy was put in place to ensure that staff are keeping up appearances after a number of guests made complaints about the level of staff hygiene.

Unite the Union said that, in addition to the policy making women into “part of the product that is being sold by the hotel”, they also place a financial burden on affected staff. Unite said that workers in the Dorchester and other hotels are on low basic pay, rely on tips and service charges to top up their wages, and are given no extra allowances to pay for the cost of the expensive (and extensive) grooming regime required.

Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, called the policy ‘unacceptable’, stating that: “Employers should concentrate on what enables people to do a good job and what drives productivity. This is 2016, not 1970; we need to see an end to this kind of objectification of women”.

This is not the first time the hospitality industry has come under fire for highly prescriptive dress code policies. In May this year, Portico (an agency which supplies front-of-house staff to a number of companies, including PwC) sent home one of its employees for coming to work in flat shoes rather than the 2 to 4-inch heels required in her contract.

Nicola Thorp, the receptionist in question, took her story to the press. An online petition she started soon gathered more than the 100,000 signatures required for Parliament to discuss her plight.

However, this is not simply an issue of bad press. There are conceivable legal implications to having in place such stringent policies on dress and grooming.

The Dorchester insisted that the policy was applied only to new applicants for the job and that it applies equally to males and females. Even if this were so, the policy could still be indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it put women at a particular disadvantage. That is, it was harder for women to comply with it. One could imagine this must be the case, as the requirements to wear make-up and shave legs are inherently female-centric). The same is arguable regarding a policy requiring women to wear high heels at all times.

Even gender-neutral requirements such as the prohibition on oily skin and excess body hair could be problematic. Some medical conditions (which could amount to a disability) entail symptoms such as skin complaints and hair growth. An example might be polycystic ovary syndrome in women, among some other hormonal conditions. Treating a member of staff less favourably on the basis of their disability (whether directly or indirectly) could open the employer up to liability for discrimination.

Of course, depending on the nature of the particular requirements in a policy, there could be other implications.

Generally speaking, the best policy is a policy which goes no further than is necessary to ensure that staff look professional. Any policy requirements which are strict – but not strictly necessary (such as a requirement to wear heels all day or avoiding oily skin) – are likely to be a step too far.

Marguerite Perin and Sarah Owbridge are paralegals at leading employment law firm BDBF.