What not to wear at work – ACAS issues new guidance on dress codes and appearance

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Posted in:HR and Employment|September 5, 2014 | Join the mailing list

ACAS has this week issued new guidance on dress codes and appearance at work and it makes useful reading for employers.

The new guidance reminds employers that they must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy and states that:

•    employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain required standards of dress;

•    dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements; and

•    reasonable adjustments must be made for people with disabilities when dress codes are in place.

Applying a dress code can be difficult and dress codes have given rise to many issues over the years, ranging from sex discrimination to discrimination on grounds of religion and belief. Employers are often very cautious about imposing dress code requirements,
but by applying a fair and consistent approach employers should be able to balance a strong corporate image with protecting their employees’ individuality and protected characteristics. If an employer does decide to adopt a dress code or appearance code, that
code should be written down in a clearly worded policy which should then be communicated to all staff, so that they understand what standards are expected from them.

Issues for employers include what is and is not acceptable for inclusion in a dress code and also what can be done about employees who fail to adhere to the code. If you are considering putting in place a new dress code, particularly one that involves a significant
change in requirements, then it’s a good idea to consult with your employees about this first and to receive their feedback on what the rules should and should not say. Doing this will mean that you are more likely to ensure that the code is acceptable to
both your business and to your employees. Where an employee fails to keep to the code, then their employer should ensure that a fair disciplinary process is followed before any disciplinary action is taken.  

Tattoos and piercings have become a widespread issue in the workplace over recent years, with approximately one fifth of all UK adults now having some form of tattoo and with body piercing also having become increasingly common. Employers may wish to promote
a certain image through their workforce which they believe reflects the ethos and image of their organisations and may wish to impose rules with regard to their employees displaying piercings or tattoos.

The police made headlines when they banned visible tattoos for all officers and staff, and threatened disciplinary action against anyone in breach of these requirements. The police were concerned about the image being put forward by their officers and employees
and it was felt that visible tattoos were detrimental to that image.

Given the multi-cultural world in which we live, employers may wish to cover issues around religious dress within their policies on clothing and appearance and ACAS advises employers to tread carefully in this area and to make sure that they act reasonably
in relation to employees being allowed or not allowed to wear articles of clothing manifesting their religious beliefs. Employers may need to justify any banning of such items and any restriction is likely to have to be connected to a significant business
or safety requirement. In many cases, items displaying religious belief may be subtle and fit well with business or corporate dress. Often employees can ask for a particular requirement of a dress code to be relaxed or varied because of their religion or belief
and often such changes are minor and can easily be accommodated. However, it may be possible for an employer to justify certain restrictions, if the employer can show that they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Employers are advised
to think carefully about the image they want to portray and about how they can reasonably work with their employees to allow them to manifest their religion in a way that does not conflict with this image.

For more information about any of the above or for practical commercial advice on this or any other aspect of employment law, please contact
Nigel Crebbin of the Berg Employment Team on 0161 833 9211 or email him at

Follow us on Twitter: @Berg_HR

(The information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Berg or any of its partners or employees. Professional legal advice should
be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.)

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