Many employers operate a dress code policy. However, what the employer might consider to be a reasonable requirement, a worker might see as discriminatory or even an infringement of human rights.
Emma Thompson, employment law specialist at Thackray Williams explains what to include in a dress code policy and highlights policies that may be discriminatory.
Why have a dress code policy?
A dress code policy makes clear the employer’s expectations and rules in respect of dress in work. You may need a policy to meet health and safety requirements or to ensure customer-facing workers are easily identifiable and presentable.
What matters should the policy include?
The policy should set out the rules, such as whether staff must wear a uniform, protective clothing, comply with a formal dress code or if they may dress casually. Further detail can be given in respect of standards for clothing and hair and for jewellery, including piercings. The policy should set out the consequences of non-compliance as well as recognise that religious requirements may need to be taken into account.
What are the consequences of getting the policy wrong?
Dress codes have attracted media attention over the years. Along with coverage of court cases, an employer was recently in the spotlight when a worker set up an online petition after being sent home for refusing to wear high heels at work.
Aside from adverse publicity, getting it wrong may put you at risk of claims for discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or religion as well as an infringement of the right to manifest religious beliefs.
When is a policy discriminatory or not?
Although a policy may apply equally to all workers and appear ‘neutral’, the policy may have a disproportionate and adverse effect on a particular group. This could give rise to indirect discrimination, unless you can justify the policy to the satisfaction of the employment tribunal.
The area is complicated, with conflicting decisions from the employment tribunal and the European Court of Justice.
For example, in two recent cases brought before the European court, an employer who had applied a blanket ban on any religious dress in the workplace was found to have discriminated against a Muslim woman by refusing to let her wear a headscarf when visiting clients, whereas another employer was found not to have discriminated against a Muslim woman by enforcing a policy of retaining religious neutrality which prevented her from wearing a headscarf in her job as a receptionist.
In the employment tribunal, it was held acceptable for a school to require a teaching assistant to remove her veil from her face when working with children because the school believed that wearing a veil could impede effective communication with the children. It was also held to be acceptable, in another case, for an interviewer to discuss with a Muslim interviewee whether her long religious dress might be a trip hazard.
Dress codes should not be stricter or enforced more strictly against one gender than the other. However, it is acceptable for an employer to have different requirements for the permissible length of hair for men and women where this reflects convention.
If you would like to introduce or enforce a dress code policy, it makes sense to check with your solicitor before taking action. To find out how we can help, please contact Emma.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.