The Problem With Workplace Dress Code

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You may be the kind of manager or employer who doesn’t enforce a strict dress code, or any sort of dress code at all.
More and more work places are opting for a casual and laid-back work environment by not implementing any set rules for how their employees must dress.

Of course, it’s common sense as an employee to realise that there are certain things that may not be appropriate or safe in the workplace (i.e. open toe shoes in a factory) but, in general, there is a lot of freedom as to what you can wear to work.

However, there are still many workplaces that are enforcing strict dress codes, some of which may be deemed as gender discrimination.

Earlier this year, Nicola Thorp started a petition demanding that it be made illegal for businesses to enforce a rule that it’s mandatory for women to wear heels in the workplace.
This came after she was sent home from her temporary job for wearing flats rather than heels – stated as unreasonable dress code.
The petition attracted over 150,000 signatures yet it was rejected by parliament.

However, it did spark a reaction from the Government Equalities Office who, in conjunction with ACAS, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Health Safety Executive, have announced that they plan to publish workplace dress code guidance for employers this summer.

The question is, why should women be expected to wear an item of clothing that is uncomfortable and expensive when the alternative, flat shoes, is no more offensive or inappropriate.

It’s understandable when a company asks that skirts must be of a certain length and there is no allowance for strappy tops but to enforce a rule of ‘high heels only’ doesn’t seem fair.
You could even go as far as to argue that heels are a health and safety hazard as they can lead to foot problems when worn too often and for long periods of time, and women are more likely to trip in heels especially if they don’t typically wear heels.

So why are businesses allowed to enforce such a rule?
Employers and business owners have a right to ask that employees have a professional image in the promotion of its activities and a dress code means that the workforce look like a unified team.
However, whether an employee is wearing heels or flats is not going to affect the quality of their work or the reputation of the business, this type of rule feels a little too close to gender discrimination.

It can also work the other way around too with their being cases where male employees seem to be singled out. For example, companies who want to enforce the rule that male employees need to keep their hair short.
In many cases, there is no safety reason behind this and to assume that men with longer hair look ‘less professional or appropriate for the workplace’ seems discriminatory.
Generally, it should be made clear in the employee handbooks what the expectation is when it comes to dress and appearance in the workplace.

But it’s important that, when putting this policy in place, you consider having flexibility and ensure that you remain equal between genders.

It’s usually best to outline an overall expectation i.e. smart casual, with a list of items that are restricted and situations where more flexibility is provided such as during warmer days or on casual Fridays.

Even when more strict dress codes are applied, there should be allowances made when religion, gender and race come into play and, as an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that all employees are aware of and are comfortable with the rules. If not, then a mutual and fair agreement must be met.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your dress code policy then we are here to help employers, such as yourself, with these kinds of HR issues, call us on 0845 2626 260 for a free consultation

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