Specific dress codes are a common occurrence in the workplace and are routinely utilised by employers to present a certain image, whilst also making staff more visible to customers and other third parties. Whether you are looking to introduce a dress code policy for the first time, or make minor adjustments to a pre-existing policy, there are certain things which need to be considered.
In line with recent government guidance, employers need to ensure that dress codes are not constructed in a way that disadvantages one employee over another. Furthermore, although dress code requirements for men and women do not have to be identical, the standards imposed must be equivalent. This means it would be considered inappropriate to expect women to wear high heeled shoes if a similar equivalent requirement was not placed on men. Those who are unsure of whether their dress code requirements qualify as equivalent should consider avoiding gender specific requirements altogether in order to protect themselves from claims of direct discrimination.
As a general rule, employers should also ensure they have a valid business reason for any dress code requirements. Decisions should not be based on personal opinion or taste, as it is easy to imagine how a ban on shoulder length hair for men without any supporting reason could lead to claims of discrimination on the grounds or religion or sex. With this in mind, employers are advised to consult directly with employee representatives when making any changes to workplace dress codes. By making this a collaborative effort, employers will reduce the risk of employee disputes and ensure dress codes remain fair and appropriate.
Employers should also ensure that dress codes do not unconsciously restrict individuals from expressing their religious beliefs. Although this may be a sensitive topic for many, employers would do well to address the issue and accept that religious clothing and jewellery are perfectly acceptable within the workplace so long as it does not cause a risk to an employee’s health and safety. Additionally, there may be instances where even the most well intended dress codes are unsuitable for employees with disabilities. In these situations, employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate staff who who may be adversely affected by the requirement to wear restrictive formal wear or uniforms made from a certain material.
If an employer’s new dress code includes the introduction of a uniform, they should consider the risks should they choose to deduct the cost of this uniform from their employee’s salaries. Although this practice is by no means prohibited, employers need to be aware of the dangers of doing so when staff are paid in and around national minimum wage (NMW). If uniform deductions take an employee’s salary below NMW then the employer risks significant fines from HMRC, who have continually displayed a zero tolerance approach when it comes to naming and shaming NMW offenders. To mitigate this, employers should consider spreading the cost of uniform deductions across several pay checks to ensure salaries stay above NMW.
Whilst the act of changing a dress code at work may seem straightforward for many, employers must give this considerable thought. Any changes must be inclusive and proportionate, with employers ensuring they do not fall foul of existing legislation on discrimination and NMW.