What’s in a dress code?

Following last week’s news item regarding a receptionist being sent home for refusing to wear high heels, we wanted to discuss what can and cannot be included in employers’ dress codes. Since the news was made public, the recruitment firm at the centre of the receptionist scandal has amended their dress code!

A female temporary employee was told to change into high heels when she arrived for her first day at the London offices of firm PwC wearing flat shoes. The 27-year-old was sent home without pay after being told she had to wear high heels with a height of two to four inches. The recruitment firm who had placed her stated that she had “signed the appearance guidelines”.

So what can employers dictate in terms of a dress code at work?

The following must apply:
• Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy
• Employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain standards
• Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements.
• Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

A dress code can often be used by employers to ensure workers are safe and dressed appropriately. It should, however, relate to the job and be reasonable in nature, for example there may be a need to tie hair back or cover it for hygiene reasons if working in a kitchen.

Employers may have a policy that sets out a reasonable standard of dress and appearance for their organisation but any dress code should be non-discriminatory and should apply to both men and women equally, but standards can be different for example a policy may state “business dress” for women but may state for men “must wear a tie”. So in this case, no one would expect “high heels” to be a requisite for men, in which case this particular policy of insisting that women wear high heels is likely to be regarded as discriminatory.

Employers may adopt a more casual approach to dress during the summer, but this may depend on the type of business. Some employers may require staff to wear business dress all year because of the nature of the work, for example sales representatives who meet with clients will need to maintain a certain standard.
It is good practice when drafting or updating a dress code for an employer to consider the reasoning behind it. Consulting with employees over any proposed dress code may ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and employees. Once agreed it should be communicated to all employees. When setting out a policy employers should also take into account employees who may dress in a certain way for religious reasons.

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