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The workplace dress code is a difficult beast, this article from Citation enables you to smarten-up your code.

While necessary in most working environments, many employers fear they’re opening a can of worms by reviewing existing policy or trying to implement new guidelines. Their fears aren’t misplaced. In recent years, a fierce debate has raged around the subject. Lawsuit after lawsuit has sprung up, and there’s now a complex history of case law painting a confusing picture of what employers can – and can’t – tell their staff to do.

As individuals, what we choose to wear each day is the most obvious, visual expression of who we are or choose to be. It can represent what we believe, our gender, even our personality and interests. On the other hand, as employees we don’t just represent ourselves – we represent our employer too - and that’s why it’s perfectly reasonable for them to ask staff for a certain look or standard of dress in the workplace.

Our right to express ourselves is enshrined in law

That’d all be very simple if not for the fact that our right to express ourselves as we wish, within reason, is protected by law. The awkward subject of workplace dress codes, therefore, comes down to what ‘within reason’ actually means.

There’s no direct, single piece of legislation affecting dress codes in the UK. However, it’s the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and expression set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 that often clash with employer’s policies. More recently, the Equality Act 2010 has directly specified that an employer’s policy shouldn’t discriminate on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage, pregnancy, maternity, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation – with clear reference to dress codes.

Cases can be complex

So how does this work in practice? The case law is complex. There’s no one-size-fits-all ruling that can be made in these cases, and any disputes have to be assessed on their individual circumstances. That being said, there are a handful of rules employers can follow to get the most from their staff while being confident they’re staying within the law.

First and foremost, employers should never insist staff wear something revealing, or anything that could make them feel exposed. This would widely be considered exploitation and putting employees at risk, so is a complete no-go. While some roles may welcome a much more relaxed style of dress, this should never be written in policy.

‘Appropriateness’ is key

It’s important employers keep ‘appropriateness’ in mind at all times. One prominent recent case is that of Nicola Thorp, who started a petition after her employer demanded that she wear high heels to carry out an office reception job. When she enquired why it was essential to her role, and whether men would be forced to do the same; she received no answer. She was then sent home from work for refusing to do so.

Her petition has now reached over 150,000 signatures and will be debated in parliament. MPs have already signaled that they agree more needs to be done to protect employees in situations such as these, and the consensus appears to be that employees should never be required to wear something that can’t be justified as necessary or relevant for their role.

Male and female dress codes are allowed – but keep it fair

Nicola’s case also touches on another controversial aspect of dress code law. Employers are entitled to apply separate dress codes for men and women, however, the law clearly stipulates this should never place a greater burden on one gender compared to the other. So while asking men to wear trousers and women skirts – in line with gender norms – is fair; demanding women wear heels while men are entitled to much more comfortable footwear is clearly discrimination.

Safety first

Employers also need to identify and accommodate items worn for religious purposes. Religious freedoms are heavily protected and this includes the right to express religion through the wearing of particular garments and symbols. This isn’t infallible, however. If an employer can demonstrate that an element of dress impedes an individual’s ability to do their job either safely or effectively then they’re likely to be granted permission to restrict or ban that item. Safety – in particular – always comes first.

Dress code discrimination cases are rarely clear-cut and it can be difficult for employers to decide what should and shouldn’t be included in a dress code policy. To help, we have created a guide to explain which common topics can and can't be included when building a dress code that is suitable for your business.

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