This article was previously published in The Financial Times on 11 September 2013.
We have never before had a written dress code policy but, perhaps due to the extremely hot summer, standards seem to have dropped recently and it has prompted more than the odd comment from clients. How should we go about implementing a dress code policy without causing upset to people who have become accustomed to a more casual wardrobe?
A: Many employers like to specify a dress code, so as to ensure that the appearance of staff – particularly those who are “customer/client-facing” – promotes a positive and professional image of their particular business or organisation. In some workplaces, a dress code may also be important in terms of helping staff to comply with health and safety obligations.
Since dress codes are not (usually) contractual policies, they can be introduced, or varied, unilaterally by employers, without the need to first obtain agreement from staff (although it is always sensible to consult with staff when introducing any kind of new policy). Employees have no legal right to object to reasonable instructions issued by their employer in relation to their appearance and, in practice, it is rare for employees to challenge a reasonable dress code. In a situation such as the one set out above, the employer could use the (presumably unfavourable) comments from clients as the trigger, and justification, for the introduction of a dress code. Depending on what is appropriate in the particular workplace, dress codes can legitimately cover clothes, footwear, facial hair/hairstyles and even jewellery.
Managers and HR are responsible for ensuring that staff observe the standards set by this dress code. Breaches of a dress code can certainly result in disciplinary action and, in the case of serious or persistent breaches, even dismissal.
Most disputes relating to dress codes – and certainly the majority of reported Employment Tribunal cases in this area – centre on the extent to which an employee can disregard or challenge the requirements of a dress code on religious or race grounds. If dress codes are incompatible with particular cultural or religious customs or requirements, indirect discrimination may occur unless the relevant provision of the dress code can be justified as a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim.