Weekly dilemma: Dress codes

Summer is approaching, and I don’t want a repeat of last year, when my office looked like a beach party. I’ve decided to implement a dress code policy. Are there any legal issues I need to be aware of, and what should I include in the policy?

As the spring air fills with the faint whimpering of those who could have sworn that you didn’t need sun lotion in April, employers need to keep an eye on the deterioration in office dress standards that traditionally accompanies the onset of warmer weather.

The rules about dress codes are pretty simple in principle but fraught with risks in their actual application. You are fully entitled to insist that your staff comply with a dress/appearance code that is reasonably appropriate to protect your corporate image. A proper sense of proportion is required here – standards which could be insisted upon in a professional client-facing role are harder to enforce in a back-office administrative function. Similarly, those standards must reflect current business or industry norms, so if you propose a “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” approach to what is actually fairly normal work wear – any skirt above the knee, not always wearing a tie, women in trousers, brown shoes with a suit, etc – you can expect very short shrift from an employment tribunal. Ideally, you should respect religious sensitivities so far as practicable, but avoiding a beach-party image should not affect that aim in any case.

However, none of this will be your biggest problem. That is applying a requirement of, say, “conventional business dress” without being drawn into describing in detail what that means for each gender. Shortly after you start that process, you are likely to find that laying down a strict dress code generates representations of varying degrees of seriousness about how women have more room for manoeuvre under it than men (or, equally likely, vice versa); has the potential to make you look ridiculous (see the recent press examples of banks and solicitors trying to achieve this); and is ultimately impossible to enforce.

“Conventional business dress” means different things for both genders, but as long as that test is your lodestone, and your view of “conventional” is neither biased nor extreme, the fact that it is marginally more or less restrictive on one gender or the other does not matter. Try to stick to general prohibitions – no beachwear, no sportswear, nothing too tight/loose, no offensive messages or logos, nothing that might reasonably be expected to attract adverse comment from clients or visitors, and so on.

Judging by your experience last year, your staff’s perception of appropriate work wear is different from yours, and a tightening of the rules may therefore cause some mild disgruntlement. You should be seen to listen to your staff on this, and it will help “sell” the restrictions if you can point to some client complaint or some objective concern other than your own personal reservations. However, not even your bolshiest employee is likely to advance a contractual right to dress how they please, so provided that you can avoid blundering into any of those leaden old jokes about, for example, short skirts helping with morale, your biggest risk is probably being thought of as a bit of a kill-joy.

David Whincup, partner, Squire Sanders Hammonds, London

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