It was recently reported that Goldman Sachs no longer requires employees to wear a suit and tie. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic has abolished a rule requiring female cabin crew to wear make-up. While this suggests a trend of employers relaxing their dress code and appearance rules, how far can an employer legally go in telling an employee what they can and can’t wear to work?

What the law says on employer dress codes

The starting position is that it is legal for employers to set whatever rules they want in terms of uniform, dress and appearance as long as these are not discriminatory based on gender, age or ability. There is no specific piece of legislation which deals with uniform expressly but, the law on discrimination will be highly relevant.

The Equality Act 2010 (the Act) outlaws less favourable treatment because of a protected characteristic (including gender, disability, age and religion or belief). This means that employers can have different rules for male and female employees, as long as these are comparable – they do not have to be identical.  For example, it is legal to say men must be in a shirt and tie and women must wear smart business dress but, it is unlikely to be acceptable to say women must wear skirts but men can wear jeans.

The Act also prohibits indirect discrimination, for example where a uniform rule puts someone at a particular disadvantage because of a protected characteristic and this cannot be justified by good business reasons. For example, a dress code regulation which said staff could not wear jewellery, while applying to everyone might particularly disadvantage an employee of a certain religion who is required to wear symbolic jewellery.

While there may very well be good business reasons why organisations have a dress code to ensure their employees present a consistent corporate image and smart appearance to the outside world, what needs to be carefully considered is the way in which the employer is requiring this to be done.

Often this is where rules can be challenged on the basis of discrimination, particularly regarding gender. For example, why should the desire for staff to look smart and professional only be met if a female employee wears heeled shoes – it could equally be achieved by wearing (smart) flat shoes. The question always needs to be asked: can the stated objective be met in a different (and more reasonable) way?

When it comes to uniform regulations that are justified by health and safety considerations, such as an employee having to wear a hard hat or high viz jacket on site, there is likely to be less room for challenge. However, that is not to say that in certain circumstances they can’t be, particularly where there does not appear to be an obvious rationale for the rule, employers cannot just hide behind the label “health and safety”.

Can my employer change the dress code?

Generally, dress codes will be contained in staff handbooks which are non-contractual documents. This means that it is legal for employers to change the details without getting the agreement of staff first. However, it would still be good practice to consult with each employee or their representatives before introducing any updates. If uniform rules are a term of the employment contract then they cannot be changed unilaterally without the employees’ agreement.

Creating a new workplace dress code policy

When formulating workwear guidance, employers need to think about the reasoning behind the rules and whether these can be achieved in different or less intrusive ways.

  • Ideally employers should consult with employees before imposing any new or updated dress code regulations. This would include explaining the business or other reasons for it.
  • Employers need to think about the legal impact of any dress code requirements on a disabled employee and whether any reasonable adjustments may be necessary. You must also consider how the policy may affect an employee who wishes to dress a certain way for religious reasons.
  • Communicate the policy to every employee and ensure it is enforced by managers consistently. Ensure the code is not enforced more strictly against women than it is against men to avoid gender discrimination issues. Consider whether training on the policy is necessary to achieve this.

Where can I find more information on work dress codes?

ACAS’s guide to dress code and appearance at work provides comprehensive legal guidance on workplace employee uniform regulations, and how to avoid discrimination issues which may arise as a result of enforcing a dress code policy.

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