Workplace dress codes have had some bad press in recent years. Most notably in 2016, Nicola Thorp was sent home from a temporary job for wearing flat shoes, when the dress code specified a two-to-four inch heel. Following this, Nicola set up a petition asking that the Government ban employers from telling employees to wear high heels, which received 152,000 signatures. The Government did not implement a ban, stating that the current provisions of the Equality Act 2010 were satisfactory, but subsequently issued guidance after a parliamentary investigation into heels and company dress codes found “widespread discrimination” in workplaces.
Given the above, it might be tempting to think that dress codes are best avoided if you don’t want to risk discrimination. However, there may be valid reasons why an employer should implement a dress code. Health and safety is one compelling reason, the other could be the ability of your customers to identify your employees . Also, there is a difference between specifying that an employee must wear high heels, and just permitting a free-for-all, as in some industries certain standards of presentation are expected.
We have compiled a list of top tips for implementing a dress code policy without being discriminatory (inadvertently or otherwise):
- Don’t make it gender specific
It can be tempting to start by mind-mapping lists of acceptable items for men and women to wear – after all, this is how many of us will have received uniform lists when we went to school. However, this approach can inadvertently bring out stereotypical views of what “smart” men and women should each look like, and risks leading back to scenarios like the high heels issue. On top of that, lists for men and women completely overlook the needs of people who don’t identify in a binary manner. If you do feel it is appropriate to list items of clothing, create one combined list for everybody regardless of sex, and let people choose what they feel is appropriate from it. This way, everybody can make a judgment about what is best for them, rather than being told that they must wear a certain item because we deem it appropriate based on their perceived gender.
2. Consider the needs of the role
Should every department based in the business be dressed the same? The easy answer may be yes, because this appeals to a sense of consistency. However, the requirements of different roles may mean that different dress codes are appropriate. Your reception team welcome visitors to your organisation, whereas your IT team could find themselves scrabbling around on the floor sorting out cables – clothing that creates a positive and welcoming image in one case, could be a really impractical in the other. As such, in a larger organisation with different functions, a blanket approach is unlikely to be a success.
3. Put the ruler away!
Don’t measure the length of somebody’s skirt – it’s not fun for anybody involved (however much you try and make a joke of it), and could very easily lead to a harassment claim. As such, there isn’t much point writing “no more than three inches above the knee” or similar in a dress code, because how are you going to police it without behaving inappropriately?
4. Take religious beliefs and other views into account
Employees have a right to object to a dress code requirement if it conflicts with their religious beliefs (although health and safety requirements will remain key). However, when implementing a dress code, why not consult with your employees rather than simply telling them what they should wear and waiting to see if they object? This means that different groups (including but not only those of faith) represented within your workplace will have an opportunity to share their views before any decisions are made, and therefore are more likely be happy with the outcome.
5. Ask yourself why you need to implement a dress code
Is there a valid reason, such as those given in this blog, or because of your personal opinions? We once knew of an employer who banned sandals – not for health and safety reasons, but because the boss didn’t like feet! Asking yourself the reason(s) for the dress code will help you to avoid unnecessary damage to morale. Also, you will be more likely to get employees on board with the expected standards when they understand the legitimate business reasons for the rules.
If you have a dress code that you think needs a review or are considering implementing a dress code, View HR will be happy to support you with this process. And finally, a word on the recent trend of “dress for your diary”, which requires employees to review what appointments they have the coming day, and select their outfit based on that. Whether or not this is suitable for your workplace will depend on various factors, such as how often your customers visit your premises. However, if your diaries are prone to sudden changes, just remember that it would be rather unreasonable to discipline somebody for not being appropriately dressed when you changed their diary at lunchtime!