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Dress to impress: Is your dress code setting the right tone?

Applying a dress code is notoriously difficult and has thrown up many issues over the years ranging from gender to religion and belief discrimination. However, applying a fair and consistent approach should allow employers to balance a strong corporate image with protecting employees’ individuality and protected characteristics.

One issue employers have had to increasingly apply their minds to is the extent to which tattoos and piercings are acceptable in the workplace. With approximately one fifth of all UK adults sporting a tattoo, this form of art is becoming more socially acceptable.

Some employers take a very tough stance on tattoos such as the police, who hit the headlines in 2012 when they banned tattoos for all officers and staff, on the face, hands and above the collar line. The police were very much focused on their corporate image and felt visible tattoos were damaging; however, more recently, the police federation has called for police forces to relax the rules believing the ban on visible tattoos may hamper the recruitment of promising candidates.

On dress codes generally some organisations have even gone as far as aligning their corporate image with Hollywood stars “think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe” and have employed image consultants; studies suggest appearance does not just affect how a person is perceived, but even influences how they perform.

So, if you don’t have a dress code it is worth implementing one and clearly setting out your policy on tattoos and piercings in a dress code is sensible. Guidance provided by Acas on dress codes and appearance in the workplace states:

“Employers may wish to promote a certain image through their workers which they believe reflects the ethos of their organisations. Sometimes this can mean that they ask workers to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work. Employers may believe they have a reasonable business reason for this especially when employees are dealing with customers. However, employers should carefully consider the reason behind the rule as they should have sound business reasons for requiring these dress codes”.

The advantages of having a code are obvious and include:

• Professionalism within the workplace

• Corporate image/branding

• Creating a work atmosphere

Key legislation to be aware of when drafting a dress code is the Equality Act 2010; however, provided a sensible approach is taken, employers should be able to avoid falling foul of discrimination legislation. Here are some general dress code points to think about:

• Dress codes allowing for different attire for men and women can be acceptable and reflect the differences between male and female dress. The key is to ensure that the standard of dress is the same for men as for women. Providing both sexes are required to dress to the same level of formality, there should be no less favourable treatment.

• There are other working environments where a more prescriptive dress code will be perfectly acceptable. Often health and safety demands a specific dress code; for example, piercings in certain sports/hospital environments may need to be taped over or removed. Other businesses require their employees to promote their corporate brand with what they wear by stipulating headscarves are certain colours, for example.

• When a dress code is more prescriptive, it should take into account the concerns of individual employees when those concerns are based on religion, sex or race etc. For example, employees can ask for a particular requirement of a dress code to be relaxed or varied because of their religion or belief. Often such changes are minor and can easily be accommodated (think Eweida – discreet cross breached British Airways dress code but should have been accommodated). However, it may be possible to objectively justify certain restrictions, if they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (think Chaplin – removal of cross was a reasonable request on a hospital ward for health and safety reasons).

• Any policy on tattoos should factor in disability discrimination. For example if someone has tattoos to hide a severe disfigurement, the policy should be flexible enough to allow for this.

Comment

Whilst a key factor for employers when considering dress codes is what their customers/clients think (this will inevitably vary between different industries), it is also key to consider what their workforce thinks. A successfully implemented dress code which is adhered too is more likely to be achieved where the employer has consulted with the workforce and employees understand the reasoning behind the code.  A balance needs to be struck between preserving a corporate image and maintaining staff morale.

Tattoos are like marmite with some seeing them as body art to be admired and others seeing them as taboo. Love them or hate them a policy outlining what is and isn’t acceptable is highly recommended to ensure consistency of approach.

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Legal news, views, trends and tools for HR Professionals. Stay ahead. Go further