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Dress Code & Discrimination

You arrive at work and find your receptionist wearing running trainers instead of his usual smart shoes. With two clients already in the waiting area you don’t want to make a scene, but you’re not happy.

It’s good you didn’t blow your top though, as it’s always wise to check for a simple explanation. And here, your receptionist sprained his ankle earlier. It was either wear the trainers or go home incapacitated, leaving you in the lurch.

But if it was just standards slipping, then it’s a dress code policy that gives you the framework to deal with it appropriately.

A dress code helps you maintain a certain image for your business. It can include personal grooming and there may well be health and safety considerations as well. But if not devised and implemented well, a dress code can give rise to discrimination. And in some cases then court appearances or mockery in the national press.

The general rule is that you’re free to set your own dress code as long as it’s justifiable for a business or health and safety reason. But you should be careful of anything that imposes a requirement on an employee which encroaches a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. (For example sex, gender reassignment or religion).

That’s not to say there cannot be any divergence of dress code for, say, men and women. A ban on beards may be justifiable for men if, for example, facial hair interferes with a safety mask. In customer facing roles, you may be able to justify a degree of gender-defined requirements based on cultural expectations.

Be warned, the more subjective your policy, the more at risk you are to a discrimination claim and/or bad publicity. Blunders abound. For example, makeup and high heels are two areas to be particularly wary of – it’s hard to justify either for any reason. Virgin Atlantic has just removed its infamous makeup requirements for female flight attendants. Which marks huge progress in the fight against societal expectations for women. And we won’t forget that PwC was caught up in a high-heels media storm a year or two ago.

It is worth reviewing your dress code on a regular basis, especially as the team grows and changes to make sure no one feels uncomfortable.

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