By: Joanne O’Connell, Editor, Employment Solicitor.com
In some sectors, the idea of dressing formally is seen as archaic as being in the actual office from nine-to-five. However, a number of legal cases about dress codes, means that appearance at work is becoming a more important issue. So, what’s acceptable and what’s not?
In most workplaces, there’s usually a dress code of some sort. Even if there isn’t a written dress code in your contract or staff handbook, it’s typical for people to dress in a similar way. Look at your colleagues and boss and it’s likely they’re in a similar attire. And what that is partly depends on your industry. For example, in creative or tech roles it’s not usual for everyone to wear a suit, in the same way as lawyers and accountants don’t tend to wear ripped jeans and trainers. So even if your line of work isn’t one that requires a uniform – in the way that being a police officer does, say – there’s likely to be a way of dressing that is the company norm.
Relaxing the dress code
As we move towards a more digital, agile and flexible way to work, our wardrobes have become more casual (there’s no point putting on a three-piece suit if you’re working from home, surely?). However, a recent study suggests that some employees think we’ve become a bit too casual. It found that more than half (56%) of millennials think their office would benefit from a smarter, better enforced dress code. The research also discovered that nearly half of over 45-year olds (42%) believe comfort is the most important factor for office attire. Despite this, 53% of this age group agree with millennials that there should be an enforced dress code, with 65% saying that we should dress to look professional, says the study (by Savile Row Company).
High heels and headscarves
Looking professional, along with health and safety regulations, are the typical reasons that employers have and enforce dress codes. Most people think it’s fair enough to look smart when you’re at work or to dress according to the health and safety rules. For example, wearing a hard hat and protective clothing when you’re on a building site. But the problem comes when employers expect some employees to dress in a particular way – for women to wear heels and make-up, for example, or for men to not have beards, which might be considered discriminatory.
Dress codes can be imposed in the terms of a contract of employment or part of a non-contractual policy, as long as they are fair and reasonable. There are many legitimate reasons why a dress code might be required: for instance to comply with health and safety requirements. However, employers still need to be cautious of giving rise to lawful discrimination on the grounds of religion, gender, gender reassignment or disability. For example, some religions require women to cover their legs so a requirement to wear skirts at work could arguably discriminate against these employees, on religious grounds. Another example of a claim (under the Equality Act 2010) could be a direct sex discrimination case, if women and not men are required by the employer to wear high heels. This issue hit the media in 2017, when a receptionist was allegedly sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. She went on to launch a petition, which attracted over 150,000 signatures.
The government has issued guidance on workplace dress codes for employers. It covers: setting a workplace dress code – your responsibilities as an employer; reasonable adjustments for disabled employees; transgender staff and dress codes and religious symbols. The document points out that: “It is best to avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements, for example the requirement to wear high heels. Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful.”
What not to wear
If you’re not happy with the dress code at work, looking at the Acas guidelines is a good starting point, as is checking your company handbook, contract and grievance policy. It's worth remembering that if you don’t comply with the company dress code, your employer may give you the choice of either a settlement agreement(a deal which involves you leaving work, for a sum of money) or going down a disciplinary procedure. However, if you think you have a potential claim against your employer (if you’ve been dismissed for not following the dress code or if you think you’re being discriminated against) you could offer your employer a settlement agreement yourself or speak to an employment lawyer to assess your claim.
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