Avoiding a Dress Code Disaster

You may recall there have been a number of stories in the press concerning dress code such as the one in which PwC sent a receptionist home without pay for wearing flat shoes. On the back of this and other examples, the Government Equalities Office has issued guidance which sets out some general principles. In this blog we highlight some of the key lessons and encourage you to review your dress code policy to ensure it is in line with these and avoid an unfair or constructive dismissal claim as well as the associated bad press (and of course if you are a HR2day client we are doing this for you).

Avoid gender specific requirements

Your dress code should not be stricter for one gender than it is for another. Remember that any specific requirements made of one gender are likely to be unlawful (for example makeup, skirts, heels, tights). This could also include the need for manicured nails or a particular hairstyle. Unless you make it a requirement for both genders then it is likely to be unlawful.

Dismissing someone for failing to comply is likely to be sex discrimination and if they chose to leave as a result of this it could be constructive dismissal.

Have similar standards for men and women

Dress code policies for men and women do not have to be identical but they do need to be equivalent. For example, you might require women to wear ‘business dress’ and men to wear a ‘suit and tie’.

Ensure that you have sound business reasons for your requirements.

You are entitled to set standards around your company image, however, this is within reason. When you set a requirement, you should think about the justification for it. In the PwC case, wearing flat shoes would not have an impact on the receptionist’s ability to perform in their role.

Even if you feel you have a sound reason, that still might be discriminatory. A recent case that was reported by ACAS highlights the clothing store Abercrombie and Fitch, their appearance policy covered everything from hair colour and style to the length of someone’s nails. The business justification was that the staff had to look attractive to attract the ideal customer of ‘cool, good-looking people’. They were forced to reconsider their policy following a backlash and the potential for discrimination cases.

Case Law has shown us:

  • A bicycle shop overestimated the smartness customers expected when it insisted a male worker wear business dress.
  • It was not fair to dismiss a male employee with a ‘bizarre’ haircut when he worked away from public gaze.
  • It was discriminatory for a shop to discipline a male employee for refusing to remove his earring because women were allowed to wear them.

Think about diversity

If you can, avoid having a prescriptive dress code. If you do have a uniform or strict code ensure there is flexibility in this to avoid discrimination. Some simple adjustments could be:

  • Checking with your uniform provider to ensure there are a range of options (such as a matching headscarf for Muslim women)
  • Ensure that the uniforms are available in a range of fits, do not require that clothes are tight fitting for example.
  • Allowing transgender employees to wear the version of the uniform that matches their gender identity.
  • Adjust the uniform for disabled workers as needed (for example replacing zips with velcro).

Weigh up Health and Safety risks

There may be a reasonable justification for restrictions based on health and safety, again think about whether these apply consistently to all employees.

Listen to your employees

Holding regular opportunities for employees to share their concerns (such as 121s) are key to identifying any issues and being able to resolve them before they escalate. Always take every request or piece of feedback seriously and ensure you respond to the employee.

If you are unsure, our qualified HR team can help you assess the risk and implement any necessary changes. You can call us on 01325 288299 (option 2)


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