Legal Q&A: Dress codes

Can I require employees to dress in a particular way in the workplace?

Yes, within reason. Many employers stipulate dress codes in employee handbooks and/or contracts of employment. Even in the absence of any contractual provisions, staff will be under an implied duty to act in accordance with their employer’s reasonable and lawful instructions, which is likely to include requirements relating to appropriate dress. However, the ability to impose dress requirements is not entirely unqualified and, in each case, must be weighed against any justifiable objections the employee may have.

How can I justify a dress code?

In certain industries (for example, retail, business and finance), it will normally be reasonable for employers to require staff to wear a uniform or uphold a certain standard of dress to project a professional image or promote a sense of recognition or identity as part of the employer’s team – particularly if they have a customer-facing role. You will ordinarily be able to prohibit inappropriate clothes (such as low-cut tops, T-shirts, mini-skirts or shorts) to maintain your business reputation. Now is the ideal time to remind employees of what is acceptable attire.

Equally, it will generally be seen as acceptable for an employer to introduce dress codes to protect its own employees or other members of the public. This may involve, for example, the wearing of protective clothing for hygiene or health and safety reasons. For the same reasons, employers may also be able to justify restrictions on long or unusual hairstyles, facial hair, piercings or visible tattoos (although the employer’s own taste is unlikely to be a sufficient reason in itself).

What justifiable objections might employees have?

Some staff may be unable to comply with dress codes because of religious or cultural requirements. You should be particularly sensitive to potential claims for discrimination on grounds of race (which is widely defined and includes race, colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins) or religion or belief, although you may, in certain circumstances, be able to justify restrictions on health and safety grounds if they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In most cases, a mutually satisfactory outcome can be achieved through informal consultation.

Employers should also consider whether they can justify different dress requirements for men and women. For example, in Department of Work and Pensions v Thompson [2004] IRLR 348 (Employment Appeal Tribunal), it was ruled that employers can require male employees to wear a collar and tie if that is the only way of achieving equivalent levels of smartness for men and women. This is unlikely to be the case in every situation.

The forthcoming age discrimination laws may also have an impact, and employers should consider whether, for instance, their uniforms are appropriate in style for all ages of employee.

What if there is no evidence of discrimination?

Even where there is no discrimination, employees may nevertheless have justifiable reasons for not wearing particular clothing – for example, where it induces a medical condition or other discomfort. Employers should treat all objections seriously, as failure to do so may lead to an employee resigning and claiming constructive unfair dismissal.

How should I deal with an employee who is dressed inappropriately?

Where an employee’s appearance does not meet with expectations, you should meet them in private, explain why it is inappropriate, and invite them to explain why they are not complying with your organisation’s requirements. Take care to do this in a non-confrontational manner. Where you consider the employee does not have a good reason for not complying with the expected standard of dress, you should give them adequate time to improve their appearance before considering disciplinary action. If you expect staff to provide their own work clothes, you could, where appropriate, consider making grants, interest-free loans or salary advances available to help them comply.

Can I dismiss an employee for refusing to comply with my organisation’s dress code?

Yes, if they have no justifiable reason for failing to comply, and have been given prior verbal and/or written warnings and sufficient time and support to change their appearance. Remember that where you contemplate dismissal or certain other forms of disciplinary action (for example, demotion or suspension without pay, but not warnings), you must comply with the minimum statutory procedural requirements. Failure to do so will render the dismissal automatically unfair, and result in an increase in compensation of 10% to 50%.

Policy guide about dress codes

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