The quest to employ a more diverse workforce may earn plaudits, but when it comes to the current fashion for ‘body art’, such as eye-catching tattoos or multiple piercings – not to mention multi-coloured hair – even the most free-spirited employer may feel forced to consult the company rule book.
While managers are entitled to expect their staff – especially those who are seen by clients – to adopt smart business dress, heightened sensitivity over inadvertent religious or cultural discrimination can make rigid dress codes a minefield for the unwary HR professional.
Summer dressing is more likely to throw up problems.
“On a warm day, it may be perfectly reasonable for a woman to go to work in a sleeveless top and to sit among colleagues who are dressed in the same manner,” says Simon Whysall, a senior solicitor with employment law specialist Denton Wilde Sapte.
“But if a shocked employer instructs her to wear a jacket next time because there’s a garish snake tattoo covering her arm, she may justifiably argue that she is being discriminated against and could even bring a case of breach of contract.
“The same would be true of an employee who was moved away from a customer-facing role because she had spent the weekend having her nose and lips pierced.”
While firms have traditionally won such cases by arguing that they are justified in expecting their staff to meet business norms, society’s interpretation of dress diversity is changing.
Tattoos are now a widespread form of self-expression among otherwise ‘ordinary’ men and women, and the fashion for facial piercings is following suit.
“A blanket ban cannot work because in some parts of the world, piercings have a cultural or even religious significance,” says Audrey Williams, head of diversity at law firm Eversheds.
“Although an excessive amount of rings in eyebrows, noses and lips may not be to everybody’s taste, and may seem to be clearly inappropriate when someone is working with the public, HR needs to be flexible, fair and consistent in its approach to appearance if it is to avoid problems.”
There are practical reasons why sandals are frowned upon in many offices – open-toed styles make staff more vulnerable to injury from heavy equipment for example – but disapproval of crude T-shirt slogans or revealing tops is more subjective.
“If there’s a good reason why the company insists on buttoned-up blouses, then that’s probably OK,” says Williams. “But if it’s simply that the managing director thinks it is provocative to go to work with an expanse of cleavage, then that is a very difficult case to argue legally.”
4 Tips on
having the right response to ‘body art’
- If you are offended by a tattoo or piercing, always seek to resolve the matter by quiet negotiation rather than immediately resorting to ‘rules’.
- A person with orange and black streaked hair may look strange to you, but will their hairdo significantly affect their ability to do the job you pay them for?
- Don’t assume that all customers or clients will be outraged by body art just because you are.
- Remember that the quest for diversity takes many forms. If gender or ethnic discrimination is wrong, then perhaps so too is hatred of body art.
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Staff uniforms – fashion police