Workplace dress codes – a serious consideration or just a matter of common sense?

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) recently issued guidance for workplace dress code policy. The advice is aimed at employers and suggests issues to consider before implementing or amending a dress code for their workers.

The guidance outlines some obvious reasons behind dress code policies in the workplace.  In addition to health and safety or hygiene requirements, employers may be concerned that a lack of policy could lead to workers appearing less business-like in front of clients and certain companies may want their employees to “communicate a corporate image”.  An example policy is the restriction of tattoos and piercings (so long as a sensible reason is provided).

Avoiding discrimination

Employers are understandably wary when setting dress code guidelines. Although there are no general laws on dress codes, the Equality Act 2010 is important legislation to consider in order to avoid unlawful discrimination.

ACAS guidance on religious dress is to “tread cautiously”.  A ban on articles expressing religious faith needs to be backed with clear justifications.  Is a subtle religious symbol going to impact on the company’s image?

According to ACAS, “Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally”.  However, it is accepted their requirements may differ slightly. The question for employers to consider is what differences may be acceptable, and what may be condemned as workplace sexism.

In recent years the media has highlighted controversy surrounding dress codes, particularly for women. Last year, the Daily Telegraph reported that a lawyer at one international firm had been criticised for writing a blog warning female trainees against wearing clearly visible underwear.

The Trades Union Congress which represents 54 of Britain’s trade unions, has previously slated several organisations, including airlines and City banks, for having “sexist” codes of dress.

Should employers opt for a dress code policy?

Ultimately, it is the decision of individual organisations whether or not to implement strict or relatively lenient workplace dress codes. ACAS has avoided advising employers on whether or not a policy on dress is recommended.

The guidance does suggest consulting employees before introducing or amending a dress code in order to avoid a negative response. Moreover, it is vital that any new policy is clearly communicated to all workers so that everybody knows the rules.

Paul Kelly
Employment Department
0113 227 9249     

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