Dress codes

You must avoid unlawful discrimination in requiring workers to dress or modify their personal appearance in a particular way.

Read the Core guidance to make sure you know what equality law says you must do as an employer.

This does not stop you having a dress code, but you must be careful that any dress code and the way it is applied does not either:

  • directly discriminate against a worker, or indirectly discriminate against a worker and other people who share the same protected characteristic as them, unless its requirements can be objectively justified.

Restrictions on dress, including hairstyles, could be justifiable for health and safety reasons or for other reasons that relate to your organisation’s ethos.

For example:

  • An employer requires long, loose hair to be tied back to avoid danger from machinery in an industrial plant.
  • Staff working in a kitchen must tie their hair back and cover it for hygiene reasons.
  • An employer providing healthcare services stops staff wearing long sleeves or jewellery to reduce the transmission of infection from one patient to another.
  • Staff working in a clothing company’s stores are required to wear clothes made by the company itself to show customers what the clothing looks like when worn.

There are a number of other legitimate reasons for you to have a dress code – for example, a requirement not to wear jeans if a worker is in a customer-facing role or to wear a uniform that identifies staff to members of the public.

The main question to ask is whether what a member of staff wears affects their ability to do their job effectively.

If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, and you want to have a dress code as a result, then you must apply your dress code in a way that avoids unlawful discrimination. 

Sex discrimination and dress codes

Having different rules about clothing or appearance for men and women can result in claims of sex discrimination.

For example,

If there is a dress code that applies to women but not to men or if the dress code is applied more strictly to one sex than the other, this could be direct discrimination. However, it has been established in the courts that employers do not have to impose exactly the same dress code on men and women. If the dress code applies 'conventional standards of dress and appearance' then it will be seen as applying an even handed approach between men and women

The standard of dress or appearance set should be the same for both women and men, such as ‘business dress’ or ‘casual clothes’. 
 

Religion or belief discrimination and dress codes

Imposing the same rule on everyone may indirectly discriminate against workers with a particular religion or belief.

For example:

An employer introduces a ‘no beards’ policy, saying this is for health and safety reasons in a plant producing food products. The policy has a disproportionate impact on workers whose religious beliefs require them not to be clean shaven. Unless the employer can objectively justify the policy, this will be indirect discrimination because of religion or belief. A better approach might be for the employer to provide workers with ‘beard nets’ to avoid the risk of hair falling into the food.

Some religions require their followers to dress in a modest way. A dress code which requires a shirt to be tucked inside trousers or a skirt may conflict with that requirement as it accentuates body shape. However, if the individual is allowed to wear the shirt over the outside of the trousers or a (long) skirt it may be quite acceptable. The question to ask is whether any requirement to stick to a dress code which does not allow a worker to do this can be objectively justified.

Some religions require their followers to wear particular items of jewellery or clothing. A ban on all jewellery or on the particular item of clothing may affect someone who follows one of these religions. If the wearing of the jewellery or item of clothing is not a matter of an individual follower’s personal preference, but something that, if they were stopped, would place the individual and others who share the same religious belief at a particular disadvantage compared to others, then a ban on all jewellery or on that item of clothing may amount to indirect discrimination unless you can objectively justify it (for example, for genuine health and safety reasons).  

For example:

A bank bans its workers from wearing any type of jewellery whilst at work. This is not for health and safety reasons but because the branch manager does not like body piercings. A Sikh worker who wears a Kara bracelet as an integral part of her religion complains about the rule. To avoid a claim of indirect discrimination, the employer considers allowing an exception to this rule, as in these circumstances, the employer may find it difficult to objectively justify the blanket ban. 

Disability discrimination and dress codes

When you put in place a dress code for your workers, you must make reasonable adjustments for any disabled people who work for you.

For example:

An employer has a policy of requiring all customer-facing male staff to wear a tie. This disadvantages a man with a skin condition that is made worse by contact with tight clothing. As a reasonable adjustment the employer allows the man to work on the reception desk in an open-necked shirt, but still requires him to be of smart appearance. 

You can read more about making reasonable adjustments to remove barriers for disabled people.

You also need to make sure that you avoid:

  • direct discrimination because of disability. 
  • indirect discrimination because of disability. 
  • discrimination arising from disability. 

Good practice tip: implementing a dress code at work

To avoid complaints of unlawful discrimination, consider whether your dress code is necessary.

If it is, then: 

  • explain the reasons behind it
  • always keep in mind how a dress code would impact on a worker’s ability to do their job
  • consult with workers when developing the code, including with a recognised trade union if there is one
  • provide a way for workers to appeal against a decision not to allow them to wear particular dress or attire
  • keep it separate from the health and safety policy on protective clothing
  • apply it consistently. 

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