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Employment Law

Implementing dress codes in the workplace

By Harry Wall
23 January, 2017

“Much of our business is public facing and the corporate image we project in dealing with customers is very important. We want to introduce a dress code policy to ensure high standards are maintained – what issues should we look out for?”

Dress codes are often used in the workplace and there are many reasons for an employer to have one, including communicating corporate image. If employees are in an area where they are meeting others and therefore represent the “public face” of the employer, then it is in order for the employer to have a dress code that directs employees to dress in a certain way.

When considering the introduction of a dress code in the workplace, particularly where such a policy did not previously exist, employers should do so cautiously. Employers do have to be consistent in their approach and ensure that any dress code is proportionate to what they are trying to achieve.

Potential for Discrimination

Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy. In terms of implementing a dress code there is the possibility that discrimination might arise on the grounds of gender, religion or disability or even race. Although different requirements may be in place for male and female staff (e.g. requirement for men to wear a tie), dress codes must apply to both men and women equally.

Equally, reasonable accommodation must be made for disabled employees when dress codes are in place. There may be times when an employee’s disability prevents them from being able to fulfil dress code requirements.

Employers may want to cover issues around religious dress in dress code policies. Employers should tread cautiously in this area. Any prohibition on wearing articles of clothing or symbols which manifest religious faith will need to be justified. Employers will need to demonstrate that they are not indirectly discriminating against such employees.

In many cases displays of religious faith may be subtle and fit well with corporate dress. This issue arose in the UK case of Eweida v British Airways where a devoutly Christian employee was sent home for refusing to remove a silver cross on a necklace – in contravention of BA uniform policy which prohibited the wearing of any visible jewellery around the neck. Although unsuccessful domestically with her claim of indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion, Ms Eweida took her case to the European Court of Human Rights and won. The Court found that Ms Eweida’s wish to wear a cross visibly was a manifestation of her religious belief.

It is noteworthy that the Court did give consideration to BA’s objective in their dress code policy which was to uphold a professional corporate image. The Court decided that while this was a legitimate aim the UK courts had afforded it too much weight. Ms Eweida’s cross was discrete and would not have detracted from her professional appearance.

Comprehensive Policy

An employer, whether drafting a dress code policy for the first time, or updating an existing policy, should always give consideration to the reasoning behind the policy, be it image focused, based on health and safety concerns or some other factor. Engaging in consultation with employees may ensure greater employee buy-in resulting in a policy that is acceptable to both employer and employee. Once agreed, the dress code policy should be communicated to all employees.

It is worth considering whether the dress code will be referenced in contracts of employment. The dress code policy should be included in the staff handbook. In organizations with both “customer facing” and “back office” staff, consideration should be given to requiring different standards across different workforce functions.

Where employers wish to promote a certain image through their employees, then consideration should be given to including expectations around employee appearance relating to removal of piercings or covering of tattoos in the workplace. Some employers have started to reconsider strict requirements in this area in more recent times.

Key Take Aways

  • Employers must ensure that the rationale for any dress code policy is reasonable, proportionate and can be objectively justified.
  • A dress code policy should contain clear guidelines on what is not considered appropriate.
  • Employers need to be mindful of their obligations under employment equality legislation – ensure that a dress code does not treat employees less favourably on the grounds of gender, race, disability or any other of the nine protected grounds. 
  • Blanket bans should be avoided where possible and it is worth considering requests to depart from the policy on a case by case basis.
  • Corporate image should be balanced against employees being free to choose their own identity.
  • Dress code policies should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they take account of changing times and remain current and appropriate.

For more information on the content of this Insight contact: 

Jennifer Cashman, Partner, jennifer.cashman@rdj.ie
David McCarroll, Partner, david.mccarroll@rdj.ie
Deirdre Malone, Partner, deirdre.malone@rdj.ie 
Caoimhe Heery, Solicitor, caoimhe.heery@rdj.ie
Antoinette Vahey, Solicitor, antoinette.vahey@rdj.ie
Catherine-Ellen O’Keeffe, Solicitor, catherineellen.okeeffe@rdj.ie
Michelle Ryan, Solicitor, michelle.ryan@rdj.ie
Harry Wall, Solicitor. harry.wall@rdj.ie

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