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Corporate and retail organisations have traditionally upheld dress code policies based on the sentiment that first impressions matter. As such, employers have long expected their employees to consistently dress to impress in the workplace or when interacting with clients. But what happens when dress code policies are discriminatory on the basis of gender, race or religion? We take a closer look at cases of dress code discrimination in the workplace, the potential cost to employers and what needs to be done to dismiss dress code discrimination once and for all!

What the law says about what you wear in the workplace

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.

  • 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 that men must wear a tie.

The question of whether equality legislation offers adequate protection to workers

A recent parliamentary report has concluded that women who face demands at work to wear high heels, makeup or revealing outfits require a new legal framework to put an end to such discrimination. In January this year, two Commons’ committees called for a review of current equality legislation after gathering evidence of sexist instructions issued to hundreds of working women but not to their colleagues who were men.

The report was launched following the treatment of Nicola Thorp, after she was sent home without pay after refusing to purchase heels after reporting to work in flats on her first day of employment in a prominent finance firm. She then launched a petition calling for a law to stop companies from requiring women to wear high heels at work which attracted 152,420 signatures. As a consequence of her petition, the women and equalities committee and the petitions committee invited the public to send in other examples of discriminatory dress codes.

MPs then reported that they were presented with disturbing examples of dress code discrimination, which served as evidence that the Equality Act 2010 was not adequately protecting women in the workplace.

The cost of dress code discrimination to company culture

Although a professional appearance is occasionally important in the workplace in order to project a reputable image to clients, it’s important to strike a healthy balance to ensure that your dress code policy is not crushing your company’s culture. Not only do restrictive dress code policies give rise to claims of discrimination on the basis of protective characteristics such as race, religion, gender and even disability, but it could also kill company culture, and cost employers excellent employees who perhaps work better without being restricted to the confines of traditional corporate dress.

For today’s workforce, critical thinking skills, high-level problem solving capabilities, extensive knowledge base and technological aptitude represent standard skill-set expectations pertaining to many professional employments. Hiring managers seek employees who can cultivate these skills and apply them to a particular job function. In theory, however, high-achieving employees can exude all these workplace talents (and more) while sporting attire that makes them feel comfortable – whether that be a suit and tie or jeans and trainers. Success and being dressed for success need not be one and the same.

What your dress code policy should look like

Step 1. Focus on performance rather than appearance

In evaluating dress code in the workplace, employers need to ask themselves whether their policy enhances performance or stifles it. For customer-focused roles that require employees to interact with clients on a regular basis, it is advisable to look well groomed and professional, while desk-bound roles may call for more comfortable and casual attire. In short, employers need to foster an environment where employees are judged by performance rather than appearance.

 Step 2. Foster Expression and Individuality

Freedom of choice affords your employees the opportunity to express themselves with their attire, thereby promoting creativity and free flow of ideas. Each employee brings unique skills and attributes to the table, which begs the question of why employers may want to enforce a dress code that effectively lumps each employee together. Although professional attire may be advisable at times, employers need to empower their employees to be themselves, and their best talents will emerge for the betterment of the company.

 Step 3. Differentiate Workdays

When you allow your employees to dress down regularly, you can leverage this setup to emphasise the importance of particular workdays. For example, if your employee is participating in a make-or-break sales pitch, then professional dress is in order. If you’re having a charity fundraiser day, than employees should be given the option to dress down and be comfortable. This level of attire flexibility can assist with prioritising the tasks each day brings.

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