Can an employer have a policy that requires male employees to keep their hair short?

Employers that wish to enforce a dress code that requires male employees to keep their hair short should be aware that such a rule could be held to be discriminatory. The position under current case law is that an employer can enforce a dress code requiring different styles of appearance between men and women, provided that the employer applies a comparable or equivalent standard of smartness and conventionality for both sexes. In Smith v Safeway plc [1996] IRLR 456 CA, the employer had a policy that stipulated that men should have tidy hair no longer than collar length and that no unconventional hairstyles were allowed. Women, however, could have long hair provided that it was tied back. This was held not to be discriminatory because the employer had applied the dress code equally to both sexes, even though that meant there were conventional differences between the sexes. This case can, however, be contrasted with Pell v Wagstaff and Wheatley Hotel [2000] ET/2801882/99 in which a male bar-job applicant succeeded in a sex discrimination claim against a hotel that refused to engage him because he would not cut off his ponytail. In that case, the tribunal held that, although there was a dress code that applied to both sexes, it was more onerous on men and that Mr Pell's appearance was not unconventional in this day and age.

Dress codes that attempt to regulate hair length may also be held to be discriminatory on grounds of religion. Male Hindus may wear a small hair knot at the back of the head, the shika, and a strictly enforced ponytail ban could lead to a complaint of indirect religious discrimination. Other religious groups, such as Rastafarians, may also be disadvantaged by a hair length dress code and employers should consider being flexible in applying the policy unless they can objectively justify the requirement for short hair.

It is also arguable that a requirement for male employees to keep their hair short at work may contravene art.10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of expression), when taken together with art.14 (the anti-discrimination right). As yet there have been no cases decided on this basis.