By Paula Cooke-McManus, Employment Consultant, Croner

Dress codes are often used by companies who expect their employees to adhere to the rules. There are many reasons companies can decide to introduce a dress or appearance policy, from health and safety reasons to promoting the business in a uniform. Paula Cooke-McManus, Employment Consultant, at Croner investigates.

Although very popular, dress codes have long been a potential cause of conflict between employees and employers. When drafting or updating a dress code or policy, guidance has always been to try to avoid anything that could be potentially discriminatory. For example, any dress code must be equally applicable to both men and women. Reasonable adjustments would also need to be made to the dress code for any employee with a disability. Employers will also need to ensure that their dress code does not indirectly discriminate against employees on the grounds of religion. Any justification for the dress code indirectly discriminating against an employee would need to be an absolute necessity of the business, rather than purely being an employer’s preference, to be able to defend a discrimination claim.

In order to fairly discipline any employee for failing to comply with a company dress or appearance policy, employers need to ensure that the dress code has been communicated clearly. Whenever a dress or appearance code is introduced or updated employees need to be informed. Employees cannot be expected to comply with a dress or appearance policy of which they are not aware.
Acas has recently updated its guidance on dress codes in the workplace. In addition to the usual potential discrimination issues, this updated guidance also focuses on tattoos and body piercings for the first time.

Many employers request that employees cover any tattoos or remove any piercings during working time. The Acas guidance suggests that employers need to be careful before enforcing this sort of rule for their employees. Employers need to consider why they are making this request before they take any action for failing to follow the rules. The guidance also suggests that there needs to be a sound business reason for requiring employees to comply with these restrictions. For example, there may be more of a justification to require an employee who meets customers as part of his or her role to cover any tattoos or piercings, than for an employee who is solely office-based and has no face-to- face contact with customers or business contacts. The new guidance indicates that unless it will impact on the employee’s ability to carry out a role effectively, or there is any genuine health and safety implication, visible tattoos and piercings are largely irrelevant.

Whatever dress or appearance code a company decides to introduce, the guidance seems clear – dress codes need to be drafted very carefully, communicated to all staff clearly and be subject to regular review.