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Dress Codes In The Workplace: Dress To Impress And Avoid Discrimination

Dress codes and appearance at work can be sensitive subjects. Employers have many valid reasons for wanting to impose a dress code, for example to communicate a certain corporate image, to make employees visible to customers or to ensure health and safety. However, if your dress code is not implemented carefully it can cause controversy among employees and, in extreme cases, garner bad publicity for your organisation or even lead to claims for discrimination.

You may remember the fuss recently caused by the news report that that a woman had been sent home from her receptionist job at PWC for failing to wear high heels in accordance with the dress code of the company who provides PWC’s front of house staff, Portico. The requirement for women to wear heels as opposed to simply smart shoes was seen as discriminatory. It generated a load of bad publicity for both PWC and Portico and Portico amended its policy immediately.

How can you ensure your dress code doesn’t cause problems for your organisation?

The starting point is The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Statutory Code of Practice (EHRC Code).

Any relevant parts of the EHRC Code must be taken into account by an employment tribunal if it is relevant to any questions arising in any employment tribunal proceedingsAcas also provides guidance on dress codes.

Key considerations are:

  • You must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy. You must not discriminate in respect of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010:  age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation.
  • You should make sure that any dress rules can be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim such as health and safety considerations.
  • Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements e.g. men can be requested to wear a collar and tie but the equivalent for women might be smart business dress.
  • It is good practice to consult with workers as to how a dress code may impact on different religious or belief groups, and whether any exceptions should be allowed—for example, for religious jewellery.
  • Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.
  • If a male-to-female transsexual person is prevented from wearing a skirt where other women are permitted to do so, this could amount to direct discrimination because of gender reassignment.

Piercings and Body Art:

An issue that has come up more frequently in recent years is that of piercings and body art and what is acceptable in the workplace. Many employers have in place a strict no tattoo or visible bodily modification policy but the number of people with visible tattoos and piercings is rising so the policy may be increasingly out of step with modern attitudes.

The Police Federation are currently challenging the Metropolitan Police’s policy of not allowing officers to have tattoos visible on their hands, neck or face. The Federation believes that lifting the ban is necessary if the police service truly wants to embrace diversity and widen the talent pool it recruits from.

Individuals displaying tattoos, piercings and body modifications are not protected under the Equality Act 2010, and therefore there can be no direct discrimination claim in relation to employment.

While you can make the decision to not employ people with tattoos or visible piercings you should consider whether you are at risk of missing out on talented workers. If you have a restriction on visible piercings and tattoos in the workplace ACAS advises that it should be written down in a policy which should be communicated to all staff so they understand what standards are expected from them. Legally businesses may require tattoos to be covered up in the workplace, if they have a business case for doing so.

Hidden Rainbow Hair:

And for those of you who want to meet company standards during the week but be a little more wild at the weekend, well, there’s always the current trend for secret rainbow hair…!


Posted by:

Fiona Wheeler

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