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Why do Employers Have Dress Codes?

In 2016 there should be no expectation that women in business should wear make-up or high heels in order to appear smartly dressed. Yet there have been a number of high profile cases reported in the press about sex discrimination at work relating to dress codes.

We have also noted an increase in the number of clients referencing comments made by their employers about their appearance. So, in order to discover how common this problem is we have commissioned a study of over 2,000 UK employees and we are examining the law, dress codes and unlawful discrimination in a series of blogs.

What is the point in having a dress code at work? Some might argue that there is no point and that your ability to do a job is not affected by the way you dress. While this might be the case for many jobs there are certainly some occupations where a dress code is necessary.

In jobs where there are health and safety issues, like in the construction sector, for example, you might be required to wear a hard hat and steel toe cap boots for protection. Highway maintenance road workers wear high visibility jackets for their safety. These items will be required as a part of the dress code for the job based on the employer’s duty to look after their employees’ health and safety at work.

Other employers will have a dress code at work in order to promote a positive, professional image or brand. It might be that workers are required to wear a uniform or that employees who are customer facing have to maintain an appropriate appearance. While some might see this as restrictive, others would argue that for employees who work face-to-face with customers a well-kempt professional image must be upheld in line with expectations of customer service.

When an employer has a dress code it is usually in an employee handbook as opposed to in the contract of employment. This may mean that the dress code is not itself a contractual obligation but breach of the code could still result in disciplinary action in certain circumstances.   

If employees are required to wear certain dress due to reasons of health and safety then it may be reasonable for an employer to discipline an employee not complying with that requirement and even to dismiss if the employee does not fall into line after a warning. 

However, if the aim of the dress code is to ensure a smart and professional appearance in the office then whether or not an employee’s outfit complies with the code may be somewhat subjective and an informal discussion is likely to be more appropriate in the first instance.  

An employer should ensure that their dress code does not discriminate unlawfully against women in what they require them to wear and by having unequal requirements for men and women or seeking to sexualise women.

Employers also need to consider exceptions to dress codes for employees of a particular religion or belief where such beliefs mean that the employee feels an obligation to wear, for example, a turban or headscarf. Failure to accommodate this could lead to a claim of unlawful discrimination. 

If you have a disciplinary hearing or believe you have been subjected to unlawful discrimination at work you can call the employment law solicitors at Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online. We can provide you with legal advice, help you prepare for the hearing or deal with an appeal on your behalf.


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