If your staff are client/customer facing, you’ll need to consider what constitutes appropriate dress and if you need or want to be prescriptive about tattoos, piercings, facial hair (with the bushy beard trend continuing) and normal hair.
Many employers have a relaxed dress code policy now, and generally staff prefer this. However, more ‘formal’ industries, for example finance and retail, may take appearance more seriously and/or provide a full or part uniform – especially in client/customer facing roles.
Dress code policy – what could go wrong?
As employers, you have every right to implement a dress/appearance code for your staff to protect your business image, but your policy must be justifiable and proportionate to the organisation’s function. In today’s climate, employers need to be very careful about what you prescribe staff to wear. For example:
- You could be liable for claims of sex discrimination if you set more relaxed rules for female workers than their male counterparts (and vice versa), or require women to wear skirts and men jeans. In early 2016, there were many media reports about high-heels when a London receptionist was sent home from work without pay for refusing to wear high heels between 2-4pm” at work. This could constitute sex discrimination if the point of the high-heels was for women to look attractive when male employees weren’t 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
- You could be liable to claims of race or religious discrimination if workers who, because of their cultural or religious beliefs, have specific requirements for their clothing or their appearance aren’t allowed to adhere to these requirements. Examples include: a ban on head-wear may discriminate against Sikhs and female Muslims; requiring clean-shaven male employees may discriminate against Muslim workers who wear a beard.
(From 1st October 2015 the Deregulation Bill came into force allowing Sikhs not to wear safety helmets in all work environments – 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 remain a few exceptions, such as the armed forces and emergency response situations where turbans cannot be worn);
- Be careful a dress code policy doesn’t discriminate against disabled staff in any way
- An Employer may, of course, have legitimate Health and Safety reasons to, for example, ban some jewellery and loose, long hair or long beards if staff 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 wore a hijab and jilbab (covering her body to her 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 didn’t believe the claimant had been offended by this proposal at the time she was expected to 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 couldn’t wear a jilbab of an appropriate length. The Tribunal found there hadn’t been any discrimination, as the employer would allow her to wear a jilbab if it didn’t 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 discrimination on grounds of religion, it was justified as it protected the health and safety of the staff and children. The Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed.
So, making general ‘prohibitions’ are best – no beachwear, no sportswear, no offensive messages or logos, maybe no tight or revealing clothes. You may also need to consider reasonable footwear if there are H&S implications. You may want to consider issues of personal hygiene and whether you can relax rules in certain circumstances, e.g. hot weather, non-client facing days etc.
What about tattoos, piercings, and facial hair?
There’ve been many media stories on how staff have been treated because of their tattoos, piercings and other body modifications – terminated job interviews, losing out on promotions, having to leave jobs because of feeling continuously undermined or harassed, to name but a few.
Currently having a tattoo or piercing isn’t covered by the Equality Act 2010, although there are frequent calls from some quarters for discrimination against people with tattoos and piercings to be added. In an October 2015 survey, 59% of UK workers felt people with tattoos and piercings would face lower career progression despite 44% of the UK workforce admitting to having tattoos and 32% of workers having non-standard piercings.
With tattoos, piercings and facial hair becoming ever-more popular, many employers have already considered the following provisions:
- Many employers require tattoos to be ‘non-visible’ to clients
- and piercings to be removed where possible.
There’s an alternative view, though, that the taboos around tattoos and piercings may be relaxing as employers recognise they could increase their talent pools for staff by including staff with them (especially in the creative industries for example).
At the moment, it may appear that employers can discriminate freely against those with tattoos/piercings, but issuing a blanket ban on this type of ‘body art’ could, theoretically, prove a problem. Recent statistics say that less than 5% of those aged over 65 have a tattoo – a blanket ban could be seen as ageist to younger staff if a disadvantage to a particular age group could be proved. This hasn’t yet been tested in the Courts to our knowledge – and employers will always be able to argue they could justify such a treatment on the grounds of promoting a professional/corporate image.
However, employees who genuinely have piercing or tattoos (or temporary henna art) as a manifestation of their religion or belief, may be able to seek a claim for discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, if they were forced to cover up their art or piercing, were refused a job, or were dismissed because of it.
What about facial hair?
Aside from religious reasons (explained above), employers should be able to implement a grooming policy requesting that beards, sideburns and moustaches are kept trimmed, groomed and cleaned.
In a late 2015 survey about beards, they were in the list of top 20 ‘items’ considered inappropriate for the workplace; contrast that to a survey grooming brand Braun in June 2015 that found 52% of British males had some sort of facial hair.
And normal hair?
You can also ask staff with long hair to keep it clean and tidy and tie it up/back, if necessary for health and safety reasons. You may also want to consider whether ‘unnatural’ bright hair colours are acceptable in your business.
When you’ve decided what’s appropriate for your Grooming and Dress Code policy, make sure you communicate your policy to your staff and contractors and ensure they can discuss it with you if they’ve any objections based on religion, sex or medical grounds.
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.