The ins and outs of dress codes

22 Jul 2019 By Olivia Lawrence

What should employers consider when introducing a dress code policy? Olivia Lawrence reports

In 2016, the case of Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist sent to work at PwC who was sent home for refusing to wear high heels, triggered a government enquiry into dress codes. Now, in the wake of the public outcry against the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in society in the form of the #MeToo movement, it will surprise many to read the recent headlines regarding large international companies requiring female employees to wear high heels and make-up while at work. 

Norwegian Air recently received widespread criticism for telling female cabin crew they must carry a doctor's note at all times if they wished to wear flat shoes. The airline’s dress code also states that female crew members must wear eye make-up and foundation or tinted moisturiser to work. Male staff, by contrast, are not permitted to wear make-up unless it's used to conceal acne or bruises. In Japan, following the success of the #MeToo movement, women have signed a petition under the hashtag #KuToo – a play on the words kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsuu, meaning pain. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with organisations having a dress code policy, and indeed such policies are commonly used to present a corporate image and to be clear about what is, and is not, appropriate attire in the workplace. However, there are employment law issues that organisations need to be aware of. In particular, when devising a dress code policy, employers need to pay careful attention to the content of the policy to strike the right balance between meeting business needs and not creating issues in the workforce.

Now that summer is in full swing, and temperatures across Europe have reached the dizzying heights of 40 degrees plus, reviewing or amending dress code policies will be on many employers' agendas. Some will decide to relax dress codes and allow staff to wear more casual clothing in an attempt to keep cool at work. As welcome as the summer months are, employers might start debating the legalities of summer dress codes, which can pose issues regarding what is appropriate for the workplace. Clearly swimwear is not, but what about shorts for men and women, or spaghetti straps? Should the same rules apply for both employers and employees?

Tips for employers

Importantly, while dress codes can form a valid part of employees' terms and conditions, employers need to ensure that any code is non-discriminatory and applies equally to both men and women.

  • Government guidance confirms that while requirements may differ, equivalent standards should be imposed on both genders. It also confirms that it is best to avoid ‘gender-specific requirements’ such as the requirement for women to wear make-up or high heels. 
  • Be flexible and reasonable and consult with employees to ensure that the policy is acceptable. There are some items of clothing that will never be appropriate for the workplace; however, allowing men to remove a tie and/or jacket may be reasonable, particularly when it is hot.
  • Consider any health and safety concerns when devising a dress code policy. It might be that employees are required to use certain equipment (for example, for protective purposes) given the nature of their work, and relaxing a dress code policy is simply not possible. 
  • Ensure any relaxation of an organisation's dress code, particularly over the summer months, is communicated clearly to the entire workforce.

Olivia Lawrence is a solicitor in the employment law team at Blake Morgan

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