Dress and appearance codes: Legal Q&A

Why are dress and appearance codes an important issue for employers?

All employers need to consider imposing some kind of appearance and dress code, regardless of the field they are working in. For some, a code is crucial in minimising accidents and personal injury claims, while for others it is part of projecting the correct company image.

Is it widely accepted for employers to have an involvement in the appearance of their staff?

As a rule, it is acceptable for employers to determine the standard of dress and appearance expected of staff at work. This will often include specific items that are unacceptable to the employer, such as piercings, facial hair and mini skirts. For those employing staff to operate machinery or carry out manual work, it is perfectly sensible for employers to ban body piercing or ensure that an employee’s dress and appearance won’t interfere with the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Implementing a dress and appearance code is a question of what is necessary, suitable and socially acceptable in the particular workplace.

How should employers approach staff about their appearance?

The issue can be sensitive so a reasonable and fair approach will help avoid upsetting and annoying people unnecessarily. Best practice is to address the issue positively and formulate a written code, while giving reasonable notice of when it will come into force.

For many employers, in terms of piercings and body art, it is the individual’s safety that is the primary concern when implementing a code, so the reasons behind the rules should be explained and the consequences of not abiding by them should also be clearly set out. Better still, involve staff in the formulation and roll-out of the code.

Should the code apply to men and women?

As far as possible, yes. However, employers will not necessarily fall foul of the law if there are different requirements for the different sexes.

How can an employer determine whether their code is discriminatory?

Where dress codes reflect the conventional views of society and the requirement of a ‘conventional appearance’ is applied equally to men and women, there will usually be no discrimination. However, the difficulty here is determining what the conventional view of society is. Ideally, there should be justification for the dress code to avoid potential claims of discrimination. For example, in the case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council, Ms Azmi was suspended from her position as a teaching assistant for refusing to remove her veil while teaching. The tribunal ruled that asking an employee to remove her veil in a classroom situation does not amount to unlawful religious discrimination, as evidence showed the wearing of a veil hindered her ability to carry out her duties.

How should employers deal with staff who feel unfairly treated?

It is important to treat objections seriously and look at the individual’s reasons. Allowing staff a grace period to adapt to the changes is likely to minimise the number of complaints. Minimising complaints and confusion is very much a question of common sense, so it’s important that any code balances clarity with sufficient discretion on the company’s part to determine what is a risk to health and safety and/or a risk to the company’s image.

How should employers approach staff who don’t comply?

Where employees don’t meet expectations, explain your concerns and reiterate the reasons for the code or requirement. Ask them to explain why they are not meeting your expectations and what they need to do (and when) to put the problem right, taking any relevant personal issues into account – for example, allowing time for someone to buy different clothing.

If employees still do not conform, they should be taken through the disciplinary procedure and, in serious cases, could be dismissed for refusing to comply with a reasonable instruction, as happened to Amrit Lalji, an airport worker employed by Eurest UK in a British Airways VIP lounge, who was dismissed when she refused to remove a nose stud, which she claimed was part of practising her Hindu religion. In court, her employer will need to demonstrate that the dress code under which the stud is banned is justified and proportionate. This case is reminiscent of the British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida, who challenged her employer’s uniform policy that prevented her wearing a crucifix necklace. In the end, British Airways agreed to re-think the rule.

Sue Jenkins, partner, employment practice, Beachcroft

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