Dress Codes in the Modern Office

Last week, parts of the UK experienced the hottest July day on record. With many of us sweltering in our offices, this raises some interesting issues concerning office dress codes. Is it acceptable to make members of staff wear suits or formal clothing, when temperatures are soaring? Some may question whether dress codes are even needed in the 21st century office.

So, why do we have dress codes?

Dress codes are set for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are in place for practical reasons or to reasonably ensure health and safety. For example, it is quite common for customer-facing staff to wear uniforms that reflect the company’s brand identity and present a consistent image of the company. Similarly, in environments such as factories or kitchens, where safety considerations are important, there will certainly be restrictions on what employees can wear. Wearing flip-flops on a factory shop floor, for instance, could have serious repercussions.

The office, however, presents more of a grey area. Often a dress code reflects an organisation’s culture. An office where there is an informal dress code, or no dress code at all, will display an informal or casual image, allowing their employees freedom of expression and identity through their wardrobe choices. This can be a deliberate decision by an employer to present a ‘modern’, relaxed or creative image internally and externally, by reducing formality or perceived ‘stuffiness’.

Other workplaces may pride themselves on tradition and standards and insist that employees wear formal clothing e.g. requiring men to wear suits with ties, and women to wear appropriate ‘business dress.’ Some firms may be more flexible and insist on such dress only when meeting with clients, but others may also apply it to back office staff to ensure a consistent standard. This may reflect a company’s culture as a ‘professional’ organisation that takes pride in its image and shows respect for the people it has dealings with.

As such, some organisations may frown upon members of staff coming into work dressed in jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops or have concerns about employees wearing ‘revealing clothing’. Visible tattoos and body piercings may also prove contentious in some firms.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, formal dress codes are controversial in some organisations. Some high-profile cases have involved women claiming discrimination for being forced to wear high-heeled shoes, even if doing so caused pain and discomfort, when male employees were not obliged to do the same. Similarly, there have been instances of male employees believing they have been unfairly treated for not being allowed to wear shorts in hot weather when their female colleagues were permitted to wear dresses.

What should employers be mindful of when setting and enforcing a dress code?

Dress codes should take into consideration health and safety. As discussed above, it may be necessary to insist that employees wear certain clothing to protect their own health and safety or the health and safety of others. Similarly, they can forbid the wearing of certain items if they pose a health and safety risk e.g. jewellery in certain environments. Conversely, employers should be mindful not to impose dress codes that may pose a health and safety risk to the employee.

In times of hot weather, employers should consider whether the health and safety of employees is being put at risk because of the dress code and the extreme weather conditions. In many cases, employers will take a pragmatic approach and simply relax the dress code. This does not mean that employees in a formal office should suddenly start coming into work dressed for the beach, but it may mean allowing staff to take off their jackets, remove their ties or unbutton their top shirt buttons.

Employers should also be conscious that dress codes do not discriminate. For example, women should not be subject to a more stringent dress code than a man, or vice versa, as this could be regarded as sex discrimination. The standard should be applied equally and should not cause undue detriment to one sex over the other.

Regard should also be given to disability, or the religious beliefs or customs of employees. Reasonable adjustments should be made, where practicable. This includes allowing employees to wear items that express their religious faith. For example, this could include the wearing of a kippah, a hijab, a turban or a cross. If an employer wishes to ban such items, it must be able to justify its reasons for doing so. Typically, this would be due to legitimate business reason or a health and safety consideration. Firms should be cautious in this area, as a discrimination claim may be made.

It is also good practice for employers to consult with their employees over the dress code. If employees feel they have had a say in how they should dress in the workplace, they may be more likely to follow the code.

Having an organisational dress code makes it clearer to employees what is or is not acceptable. Employees should adhere to the code and be aware that it is possible to be disciplined for not meeting the required standard. Dress codes need to be reasonable and be applied equally and consistently within an organisation.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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