Is it time to update your workplace dress code?

In 2016, reports began to appear in the UK media about a PWC female employee who had been sent home on her first day because she wasn’t wearing high heels. This triggered a media frenzy on unfair workplace dress codes and even an enquiry by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee. Work dress codes aren’t usually a controversial topic but incidents such as that with PWC, as well as high profile cases that have concerned the ability to express religious beliefs through work attire (e.g. headscarves) have put a new spotlight on the topic. So, is it time to review your workplace dress code?

Yes: high heels

If you have a workplace dress code that insists women wear heels of a certain height then it might be time to revisit this. The House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee concluded that such a requirement could be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of female employees and could made them feel sexualised and uncomfortable at work. Although this conclusion has no legal weight, it will have influence. Plus, any reasonable employer would presumably want to avoid putting women in a position where health or wellbeing might be threatened. It is a topic that isn’t likely to lose impact any time soon, as the Government Equalities Office is working with ACAS, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to produce a campaign that educates workers on rights when it comes to dress code, make up, hair etc. So, it’s preferable for most employers to make adjustments now.

No: facial hair

The trend for beards is still going strong and, as a result, male employees of all ages now arrive at work sporting significant facial hair. But can you insist on a clean-shaven workforce in a workplace dress code? The answer is yes – if for health and safety reasons. The Health and Safety Executive is clear on the point that beards can prevent dust masks from fitting properly and, as a result, they can prove to be a health and safety risk. Although there are products out there that accommodate beards they are usually more expensive. So, a workplace dress policy that insists on clean-shaven faces, where there is a requirement for a dust mask, is the most cost effective way of keeping everyone safe and unlikely to be a problem.

Revising workplace dress codes

If you’re going to make changes to your workplace dress code then there are a few points particularly worth considering:

Make sure that your dress code applies to everyone. If, for example, you were faced with a female employee claiming a requirement to wear heels amounted to less favourable treatment than a male colleague because it put their health at risk for no reason this might well succeed as discrimination at a Tribunal. Hold all employees to an equal standard to avoid this kind of claim.

Is there another way to achieve your aim? If you’re looking to ensure your staff achieve a professional appearance with their footwear it’s probably preferable to require all staff to wear smart shoes, rather than specifying that women must wear high heels. This is a less discriminatory way of achieving the same aim and more objectively justifiable.

Be flexible. When it comes to health and safety or religious implications of the rules that you have in a dress code policy it’s important to be accommodating. Don’t – as PWC allegedly did – laugh at an employee highlighting potential discrimination but look for an alternative or compromise instead.