Written by KAROLINA BOOTH
A workplace dress code is a simple enough concept – the UK government Equalities Office describes it as “a set of standards that define what is appropriate for employees to wear at work”.
In most cases this is designed to ensure a professional appearance, ensuring those in customer facing jobs represent the company’s high standards and professionalism. There is also evidence that maintaining dress standards improves employees’ attitudes, pride and unity in the workplace. It is important to remember that a dress code is an influencing factor in how an organisation’s culture develops, so it should reflect the company’s values and ethos.
It is, however, one of the hardest sets of guidelines for employers to define, communicate and enforce. Aside from job roles where a standard uniform applies, there is so much that is open to interpretation that a dress code can run the risk of being too restrictive to be practical, or too broad to be effective. For example, what does “smart” mean – trousers, skirt, a two-piece suit? In more casual roles, such as those where T-shirts are permitted, does that extend to those bearing slogans or band names?
Adding to this potential lack of clarity is the real risk of implementing a dress code that could be seen to discriminate or increase the risk of harassment by colleagues or customers. Employers should always consider if there is a valid business reason for enforcing a specific dress code and if this is truly required to achieve a legitimate business aim.
Here are some key points that should be considered when setting a dress code:
Health and Safety
How practical is the uniform? Take into consideration any health and safety implications which may not be obvious. For example, employers can require staff to wear a particular style of shoe as part of a dress code rather than for personal protective purposes, but for staff who are on their feet all day the most attractive shoes may not always be the most practical and may lead to discomfort or an increased risk of slips and trips. Remember that your employees should work safely and comfortably in the workplace while still maintaining a professional image.
The guidance on discriminatory dress codes provided by the Government Equalities Office explains that whilst dress codes for male and female employees do not have to be identical, the standards imposed should be equivalent and do not place a “heavier burden” on any one gender. However, with the social and legal landscape constantly shifting, employers are increasingly moving towards more gender-neutral policies, taking into account that some staff may identify as transgender, non-binary or gender fluid. It is therefore advisable for employers to avoid gender-specific prescriptive requirements, which may include a requirement to wear make-up, high heels, have manicured nails, or wear hosiery, skirts or ties. Transgender employees should be permitted to follow the organisation’s dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity.
Tattoos and body piercings
Nowadays dress code doesn’t only focus on clothing. Increasingly employers are taking positions on visible tattoos, piercings and other forms of body modification. It is worth exploring whether these are areas that are important for your organisation and if they need to be addressed in your policy.
You must ensure a dress code does not directly or indirectly discriminate against employees with a particular religion – or even no religion. Some people may consider their dress to be an important part of their religious observance and are likely to have protection in law under Equality Act 2010. For example, a dress code forbidding headgear will be discriminatory to male Sikhs, who must wear a turban.
Always consider the reasoning behind a dress code when setting it, and do so following consultation with your employees and relevant organisations such as trade unions. You should also allow flexibility especially for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.