Masterclass: How to define a dress code at work

24 May 2018 By Kate Palmer

Defining clear parameters around what employees should wear helps make sure the rules are clear

In today’s business landscape, it’s common to see organisations becoming more relaxed around their dress code, on the basis that this drives performance and encourages a more flexible working environment. But some companies still prefer to have stricter dress codes, in which case implementation is key. 

Dress codes are very subjective – one person’s ‘business attire’ can be a world away from a colleague’s – so it is important to have a written policy that outlines clear parameters, such as ‘no sandals or tracksuits’. You can make this verbally clear before and during employment, but make sure it is also written down so it cannot be misinterpreted.

If you’re going to implement a dress code, make a clear business case or present an objective reason for the policies, such as health and safety. Once you get into the appearance of your staff, it’s easy to become embroiled in issues of direct and indirect discrimination, particularly when it comes to treating men and women differently or infringing on religious rights. It’s therefore crucial that any policies you apply are reasonable, consistent and justifiable. 

I advise against introducing any dress code policies relating to grooming or aesthetic. Mandatory high heels are very tricky to acceptably justify, for example. The case of Nicola Thorp, who started a petition that gained more than 152,000 signatures after an agency sent her home for failing to wear high heels, illustrates how public such cases can become. 

Some organisations, particularly in sectors such as retail, may provide staff with a uniform, such as branded work shirts. If you have a business where that is appropriate, this can be an effective move for dress codes; they are neutral and easier to manage, as well as having the potential to show your company’s brand, but be careful not to breach the minimum wage if staff are required to pay for their uniform, as Primark was called out for doing in 2017. 

Finally, if an employee is unhappy about the dress code, listen to them with an open mind, deal with such instances on a case-by-case basis, and ensure you are being fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory. This can be very important for people who identify as transgender or non-binary, who may feel the dress code does not align with their gender identity. Foster an inclusive and transparent culture, where staff feel they can raise any concerns, and take their feelings into account.

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