Is your dress code policy tailored for tribunal or dressed for success?

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Many organisations require their workforce to adhere to rules regarding their appearance, whether they are required to wear a uniform or wear appropriate ‘business attire’.

From confusion over what constitutes ‘smart business dress’ for men and women to whether women could be dismissed from a job by refusing to wear a bra! Dress codes have been contentious for many years.

Here we look at how to avoid falling foul of equality legislation whilst still being able to uphold the standards of your company image.

Are dress codes illegal?

This is a myth which surfaces every now and then. In fact, they aren’t illegal but they can be.

If you have a dress code, it should be reasonable and relevant to the job being carried out.

What is reasonable?

Good question, it’s a word that crops up a lot in employment legislation and HR best practice but of course it’s widely open to interpretation. Let’s look at some examples:

Example 1.

‘All staff are required to wear smart business dress in the workplace’

Reasonable? Yes. It may be a bit vague and of course what is ‘smart’ is also open to interpretation but try to avoid being too prescriptive as you are more likely to run the risk of discrimination.

The only exception to this would be where certain items of clothing should or should not be worn for health and safety reasons. In such cases it is important to be as clear as possible.

Example 2.

‘All staff are required to wear smart business dress in the workplace…. Women are required to wear skirts’

Reasonable? No. It can be argued that wearing smart trousers is a suitable equivalent to wearing a skirt and therefore employers will struggle to argue otherwise. Therefore, this dress code is an example of one which is too stringent to females and is likely to be deemed discriminatory.

CASE NOTE- if the above example sounds a bit too far-fetched then bear in mind that it was only in 2016 that British Airways relaxed its ruling to allow female cabin crew to wear trousers!

In addition, this type of rule may adversely affect women whose religious traditions require them to keep their legs covered, so you may find that a dress code rule such as this may leave you open to claims of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief as well as on the grounds of sex.

So, it’s illegal to specify that men must wear a tie then?

No, it isn’t. I know what you’re thinking, the dress code is specifying that men dress a certain way and wearing a tie doesn’t apply to women…. Well there’s some famous (yet quite old) case law on this.

CASE NOTE– DWP v Matthew Thompson. The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that requiring men to wear a tie was not necessarily discriminatory.

This was on the basis that the requirement for members of a particular sex to wear a specific item of clothing, a tie in this case, was intended to promote a smart business dress standard for which the equivalent standard was applied to members of the other sex as well and this was made clear in the dress code policy.

Had there been no requirement for women to adhere to any form of standard i.e., they were permitted to turn up to work in tracksuits or directly prohibited from wearing a tie (if they so wished) I’m pretty sure the outcome of this case would have been very different.

This case was from 2004, so it remains to be seen if it will be challenged and many businesses now are fairly relaxed about whether men should wear ties or not. If you do insist on men wearing ties, then do consider at least relaxing this rule in hot weather.

Is it appropriate to ban the display of religious symbols?

If you have a dress code which states explicitly that any religious symbols are banned, then you are leaving yourself open to claims of discrimination. It goes back to having a justifiable reason for imposing such rules.

If there are health and safety reasons prohibiting jewellery for reasons of safety when operating machinery or for food hygiene reasons, that is likely to be legitimate. For example, it would not be discriminatory to ask someone to remove a crucifix chain if someone wearing a necklace or any chain round their neck is also expected to remove them.

Getting it right- what to consider before implementing or revising your workplace dress code:

  • What are the aims of the dress code? Is it a uniform to depict your brand, health and safety requirements, ensuring a professional image to clients etc.
  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel– invoking any policy changes or introducing a policy to target poor conduct from one individual is not necessary. Our experts can advise you on managing individual incidents of inappropriate work attire.
  • Consult with the employees. After all a comfortable workforce is a happy workforce. If there are any concerns raised on the grounds of religion or disability for example- seek advice from our experts.
  • Communication is key– make sure everyone knows about the dress code and that managers are implementing it fairly.

REMEMBER– seek advice from our experts and remember our HR Documentation experts are on hand to ensure that the drafting of any such policies are bespoke to your business but also legally compliant.

Please quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls. 24-hour client advice line: 0800 151 2935

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Elena Boura