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Workplace dress codes: what not to do

By Paul Kelly, Head of Employment Law at Blacks Solicitors LLP, discusses workplace dress codes and the ‘dos and don’ts’ employers need to bear in mind.

“Workplace dress codes are becoming increasingly controversial with a number of high profile cases and changes to company policies having recently appeared in the media. For example, Virgin Atlantic recently announced that its female cabin crew are no longer required to wear makeup.

“This is only the latest in a series of businesses updating their dress codes to reflect a more progressive attitude toward their employees.

“Yet it may come as a surprise to many that, in the UK, employers are free to impose dress codes and that many still do. This may be to ensure that a smart, corporate image is conveyed or to meet health and safety obligations.

“Employers have a wide discretion in relation to what a dress code may require staff to wear, however there are still things to bear in mind to ensure an employer isn’t exposed to claims of discrimination.”

Avoid discrimination

“Whether it’s requesting women wear heels, inhibiting employees from wearing clothing that demonstrates their faith, or requesting tattoos be covered up, if an employer knowingly discriminates against a group of employees this can lead to further action.

“Any restrictions on articles of clothing, or appearance, needs to be justified and applied to all groups equally to ensure that discrimination does not occur.”

Health & Safety is key

“If an employer needs to place restrictions on employees and enforce a dress code, this must be connected to a real business or safety requirement. Organisations in the manufacturing, healthcare, or hospitality industries, for example, will want to ensure that staff follow any policies to the letter to keep the workplace environment as hygienic and safe as possible.”

Don’t keep it set in stone

“Although for many industries a dress code is really important to ensure a reasonable and consistent standard of dress, adjustments should be made in certain cases. For example, for people with disabilities, employers must be aware that following a dress code exactly can cause difficulties. This could include reducing confidence, increasing stigma, or having to alter a uniform to accommodate their disability.”

Be consistent

“Whatever the dress code an employer decides to implement, it is important that it is both properly communicated to all staff and enforced fairly and consistently. Staff need to know both what is expected of them and the penalty for failing to comply with a published policy.”