Please note that from August 2016 this article will no longer be updated – you can see our new article on Grooming and Dress Codes here.

After the recent hot weather and with summer around the corner (allegedly), is your client happy with what you wear to the office? The warm weather naturally lends itself to a different dress styles but what if you turn up to work in shorts, vests, mini-skirts and halter-necks?

Your client or employer may currently require you to wear a uniform or already have a dress code policy – but if you are currently free to wear what you like, can your employer impose a dress/appearance code on it’s staff?

Many employers have relaxed dress codes now and a recent survey by First Direct found that 2/3rds of workers prefer a relaxed dress code as it helps them be more productive and makes them happier at work. However, the more ‘formal’ industries, for example finance and retail, may take your clothes more seriously – especially if you are in contact with customers or business partners where they may have legitimate reasons for the need for you to dress ‘smartly’.

Employers have every right to implement a dress/appearance code for their workers, that you should comply with to protect their business image, but their policy must be proportionate to the organisations function and justified. In today’s climate employers need to be very careful about what they prescribe you should wear. For example:

  • Your Employer could be liable to claims of sex discrimination if they set more relaxed rules for their females workers than their male workers (or vice versa). Or require women to wear skirts and men jeans.  In 2016 there were many media reports about high-heels when a London receptionists was sent home from work without paying for refusing to wear high heels between 2-4″ at work.  This could be sex discrimination if the point of the high-heels was for women to look attractive when male employees were not expected to look the same!  It’s also worth considering the Health and Safety implications of requiring women to wear high heels for a prolonged length of time.
  • Your Employer could be liable to claims of race or religious discrimination if workers who have specific requirements for their clothing or their appearance (because of their cultural or religious beliefs) are not allowed to adhere to these requirements.  Examples are – a ban on head wear may discriminate against Sikhs; requiring clean-shaven male employees may discriminate against Muslim workers who wear a beard.

At the end of March 2015 the Deregulation Bill came into force allowing Sikhs not to wear safety helmets in all work environments – this will be effective from 1st October 2015 (Sikhs were already exempt from wearing safety helmets in the construction sector, but were required to wear helmets in lower risk workplaces, such as factories, warehouses and transport).  There will remain a few exceptions such as the armed forces and emergency response situations where turbans cannot be worn.

  • See our Guide to ‘what is religious discrimination‘ here, which contains more information about dress codes (this Guide will be updated regularly, while this post may not be).

Your Employer may, of course, have legitimate Health and Safety reasons to, for example, ban some jewellery and loose, long hair if you work with machinery.  In 2015, in Begum v Pedagogy Auras UK Ltd t/a Barley Lane Montessori Day Nursery, the claimant was offered an apprenticeship as a trainee nursery assistant.  The claimant was an observant Muslim who work a hijab and a jilbab (covering her body to the ankles).  There was a discussion at the interview about uniform, including non-slip footwear and whether the claimant could wear a shorter jilbab to work (as the existing one covered her shoes and touched the floor), as the Manager felt this might be a trip hazard for the claimant, her colleagues and the children at the nursery.  The Tribunal did not believe the claimant had been offended by this proposal at the time, she was expected by the Employer to start work.

However, she claimed she had suffered a detriment by reason of the manifestation of her religious belief, as she was unable to accept the job if she could not wear a jilbab of an appropriate length.  The Tribunal found there had not been any discrimination, as the employer would allow her to wear a jilbab if it did not constitute a trip hazard. This practice was applied by the Employer to all staff equally.  The Tribunal found that if there had been any indirect discrimation on grounds of religion it was justified as it protected the health and safety of the staff and children.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed.

General ‘prohibitions’ are best – no beach wear, no sports wear, no offensive messages or logos.

If you do not comply with a dress code what will happen? Your Employer would be advised to first find out what your objections are and if these objections are not because of potential discrimination then –

If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk  – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – our fees are low to reflect the pressures on small businesses and you can hire us for as much time as you need.

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.