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Dress code

As a subject area, dress codes and appearance at work are becoming more important in the workplace. This is partly due to a number of legal cases being highlighted in the media and uncertainties amongst employers and employees about what dress code is acceptable.

Dress codes are often used in the workplace and there are many reasons why an employer may have one, for example workers may be asked to wear a uniform to communicate a corporate image and ensure that customers can easily identify them. Often an employer will introduce a dress code for health and safety reasons, for example health care workers may not be allowed to wear jewellery for safety reasons when around patients and certain clothing may not be allowed in factories while operating machinery.

An employer's dress code must not be discriminatory in respect of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 for age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation.

Download pdf  Dress codes and appearance at work: Body supplements, body modification and aesthetic labour [578kb] report - Aug 2016.

Key points

  • Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy.
  • Employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain standards.
  • Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements.
  • Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

A dress code can often be used by employers to ensure workers are safe and dressed appropriately. It should, however, relate to the job and be reasonable in nature, for example workers may be required to tie their hair back or cover it for hygiene reasons if working in a kitchen.

Employers may have a policy that sets out a reasonable standard of dress and appearance for their organisation. Any dress code should be non-discriminatory and should apply to both men and women equally. Standards can be different, for example a policy may state "business dress" for women but may state for men "must wear a tie".

High Heels and dress codes

Reports in the media have high-lighted the case of a temporary worker who was sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels at work. Although staff can be dismissed for failing to comply with a dress code, employers should be cautious when operating a dress code in this way. Any dress code should not be stricter, or lead to a detriment, for one gender over the other. It has been reported that wearing high heels can cause physical pain and even harm, and therefore may lead to a successful claim of direct discrimination on grounds of sex. 

Employers may adopt a more casual approach to dress during the summer, but this may depend on the type of business. Some employers may require staff to wear business dress all year because of the nature of the work, for example sales representatives who meet with clients will need to maintain a certain standard. Employers may have a "no flip flop" policy as a health and safety precaution, but any restrictions should be clearly set out in the organisation's policy.

It is good practice when drafting or updating a dress code for an employer to consider the reasoning behind it. Consulting with employees over any proposed dress code may ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and employees. Once agreed it should be communicated to all employees. When setting out a policy employers should take into account employees who may dress in a certain way for religious reasons. However, workers can be required not to wear certain items that could be deemed a safety risk, for example loose clothing may be a hazard if operating machinery.

If employees do not comply with the standards it may result in a disciplinary hearing.

Exceptions to the rule

There may be times when employees wish to support different charities, and they would like to ask for exceptions to the normal dress code rules, for example jeans for jeans day, Christmas jumper day etc. On these occasions people should ask their line manager if it would be ok to take part.

Religious Dress

Some employers may wish to cover issues around religious dress within their policies, however, employers are advised to tread cautiously in this area as they should allow groups or individual employees to wear articles of clothing etc that manifest their religious faith. Employers will need to justify the reasons for banning such items and should ensure they are not indirectly discriminating against these employees. Any restriction should be connected to a real business or safety requirement. Some recent legal decisions in this area suggest that people should be allowed to demonstrate their religious faith through their dress, for instance by wearing an unobtrusive cross symbol to denote Christianity or wearing a Yarmulke or Kippah (skull cap) as part of the Jewish faith. However, there have been other rulings based on different circumstances that may appear to conflict with this position.

In many cases the display of religious faith may be subtle and fit well with business or corporate dress. Employers are therefore advised to think about the image they want to convey and about how they can work with employees to allow them to manifest their faith in a way that does not conflict with this image, or health and safety requirements, rather than provide a very strict and limiting dress code.

Tattoos and body piercings

Employers may wish to promote a certain image through their workers which they believe reflects the ethos of their organisations. Sometimes this can mean that they ask workers to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work, especially when dealing with customers. If an employer does decide to adopt a dress code or appearance code it should be written down in a policy which should be communicated to all staff so they understand what standards are expected from them. Some employers have started to reconsider their strict "no tattoo" policies following media reports and online petitions.