Shiva Shadi – partner and head of Employment – discusses Dress Codes at Work: One Size Does Not Fit All!

It does not come as a surprise that most organisations have a “one size fits all” dress code or policy.  It would also not be surprising if the dress code stipulated that staff should maintain appropriate standards of dress and personal appearance to promote a positive and professional image.  It is – however – uncomfortable, if not disturbing, that organisations feel that their customers or service users will be unaccepting or unapproving of their services if their receptionist is not wearing a two to four inch high heel!

Most receptionists I know sit behind a desk and no one can see what shoes they wear let alone how high their heels are!  I certainly haven’t come across an appraisal form that has stipulated the lack of a heeled shoe as the reason for poor performance.  However, these facts are the reason that 150,000 people signed the petition which has led to The House of Commons Petitions Committee and The Woman and Equalities Committee to publish a report calling for it to be illegal for employers to require female staff to wear high heels at work.

The lady in question worked as a receptionist and found herself heading back home, without pay, not long after she had arrived due to the fact that she was wearing flat shoes.

This was followed by the Advocate General giving an opinion that a dress code banning Islamic headscarves was not religious discrimination relating to a Muslim employee who refused to remove her headscarf in breach of G4S’s dress code and was dismissed as a result, she too was a receptionist.  The case is currently with the European Court of Justice.

These incidents highlight the necessity for organisations to think through their dress codes and exercise caution when restricting the rights of employees as to what they can and can’t wear.  There is a need to balance the reason for any dress code with a disadvantage it may cause to an employee.

Whilst it is thought that the claims that would be pursued by employees would only fall under sex discrimination and race discrimination, a dress code could actually also discriminate on the grounds of disability and gender reassignment.

It is important to consider whether the dress code is objectively justified.

In circumstances such as health and safety requirements, specific line of work where public image is necessary, or where offence may be caused there could be justification.

So, whilst no one is stipulating that organisations have to allow employees to turn up in tracksuits (however comfortable though that would be) it is important to check your dress code to ensure it is not outdated and sexist and also to make sure you consider requests made by employees carefully and balance the reasons for a particular dress code and the disadvantage which it has on the employee.

When it comes to dress codes one size does not fit all, and organisations should be wary of the adverse PR that can come from their decisions and the effect it has on their reputation and ultimately their bank balance.

For more information about Shiva and her work, please click HERE.

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