What not to wear: why open dialogues on dress codes work best

How to draft and implement an appropriate work clothes policy

The holiday season marks the start of a summer ‘dress down’ policy in many workplaces, prompting employers to reconsider whether their approach to dress codes is fit for purpose. Dress code stories in the news, and now a parliamentary inquiry following a receptionist being sent home for not wearing high heels, are continuing to draw attention to this issue.

There may be good reasons for implementing a dress code in the workplace. It may have the aim of protecting or projecting a particular brand, or managing safety risks caused by clothing or jewelry. But restrictions should be based on the grounds of business or health and safety requirements, rather than merely reflecting the traditional norm.

There are a number of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to bear in mind when drafting and implementing a workplace dress code; organisations may find it useful to consult Acas guidance before doing so.

What to do
Although it is acceptable in law to impose different dress requirements on men and women, these should be applied equally across genders: for example, asking women to wear a smart dress and men to wear a collar and tie in the office.

Companies should also consider why they need a dress code. Is it for health and safety reasons, or is just convention? It’s worth bearing in mind not only the image the company is projecting to clients, but also the image being projected to current and future employees. There is a shift at the moment towards more casual dress and younger employees could be deterred by strict and outdated dress codes. Banking group, JP Morgan, for example, recently relaxed its dress code to smart casual as it felt it was unnecessary to enforce the more traditional ‘suit and tie’ look.

Employers should provide clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable. If employees are clear on what they can and cannot wear, there is less room for disagreement or confusion about what is appropriate. Explanations for why dress codes are in place can also help pacify disgruntled staff.

Organisations should also consider allowing people to wear items that make their religion apparent. Although some roles may require a strict dress code which limits what employees can wear, if there is no health and safety or commercial reason behind a restriction, it may be hard to justify and give rise to discrimination claims if it imposed on staff.

It’s best to have an open dialogue about dress codes. If an employee is not adhering to it, then an employer should try to agree a solution before dusting off the disciplinary policy. There may well be a good explanation, and it may bring to the surface an opportunity to either update an outmoded dress code, or explain to an employee why he or she needs to adhere more closely to its requirements.

What not to do
Employers should avoid isolating a specific religion or other group possessing a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010 and treating them differently in a dress code, as this risks discrimination and possible claims. For example, before an employer restricts a Muslim woman from wearing a veil, or a Christian from wearing a cross, it should consider why this is necessary and whether a general restriction on wearing religious items throughout the company would be more appropriate. By the same token, an outright ban on tattoos or piercings may indirectly discriminate against a younger workforce.

Employers should not insist on unnecessary or outdated dress codes, even though there is no legal restriction on this. Recent social outrage over the high heels story highlights the importance of updating dress codes to maintain a positive public image, and keep employees comfortable and happy at work.

But companies should not abandon necessary dress codes – some standards need to be maintained for health and safety reasons, particularly in working environments such as hospitals, building sites or restaurants, where there are practical reasons for limiting what employees can and cannot wear.

By Hannah Ford, Senior Associate
First published in People Management, July 2016

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