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The dress code dilemma: Advice for employers and employees

Putting together a dress code that’s fair and reasonable in the eyes of the law can be a tough task. Even though most have only the best of intentions, many employers fall foul and end up in dispute with members of their workforce.
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This is hardly a surprise when you consider what we choose to wear touches on themes and issues such as religion, gender and sex. The way each of us dress and style ourselves is a primary means of self-expression. So what are an employee’s rights – and what can employers do to set an appropriate dress code without infringing upon them?

Dress codes cause problems

In setting out and specifying what you can and can’t wear at work, a juxtaposition of rights is created. The right of an individual to express themselves and the right of an employer to set standards for their staff are pitted against each other. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer, and cases have to be assessed on a unique basis.

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It’s both the Human Rights Act 1988 and the Equality Act 2010 that cement these individual rights. The former sets out the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and expression, while the latter specifies that employer’s policies should never discriminate on the basis of matters including age, disability, religion and gender – amongst others. At the same time, employers are within their rights to stipulate how staff conduct ourselves and behave, where they should be and when, and in this case; how they look. This is usually specified in a contract.

What can and can’t be included

This comes down to ‘reasonableness’. Both employer and employee are asked to be accommodating and fair, which varies depending on the issue at hand. Take for example the case of Nicola Thorp; who was instructed to wear high heels at the office, and was sent home when she refused. Her employer broke the law on the basis that men were free to wear more comfortable and casual footwear. She was the victim of sex discrimination.

Or consider the case of Natalie Eweida, suspended from work as a flight attendant for wearing a small crucifix around her neck. She won her lawsuit because the crucifix was a form of religious expression – and her employer couldn’t argue that it affected her ability to do her job. Bosses should be accommodating of religious dress, but are free to stand firm where it affects the standard or safety of the employee’s work.

Employers should also never place staff in uncomfortable and degrading situations through dress code policy. Erin Sandilands won a lawsuit against her former boss after being dismissed for refusing to wear a skirt, more make-up and unpinned hair. Her manager claimed the change in dress code was to ‘please the punters’, and as a result the court ruled she was subject to a humiliating work environment.

As an employer, you should stand firm on what dress is suitable for your business, but be accommodating. Develop a dress code that can be applied fairly to all individuals. It should always be reasonable, and one which ensures staff can do their job safely.

For more information on where the law stands on common dress code dilemmas; Citation have developed a handy guide.

Ailsa Illingworth is senior marketing manager at Citation Professional Solutions

Image: Shutterstock

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