Dress codes: What your business needs to know

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Goldman Sachs' decision to relax its dress code will help the firm to attract the best new talent

There’s been a lot about dress codes in the press recently; with leaked emails from the BBC revealing strict requirements about the appearance of its newsreaders, and a city receptionist sent home for refusing to wear high heels. Most recently Goldman Sachs has announced its decision to relax its dress code to allow certain employees to wear casual clothes throughout the year.

The policy will apply to the bank’s technology and engineering staff and is designed to help them attract the best new IT and technology talent. Many businesses in the technology sector, such as Google, already allow their workers to dress casually and Goldman Sachs' decision reflects its desire to compete.

The move within professional services organisations to allow staff to 'dress down' on certain days is also indicative of the wider trend towards more modern working practices. Employers are beginning to realise that people are just as productive, if not more, when they are comfortable and relaxed at work.

One has to question why Goldman Sachs has only relaxed the dress code for its technology and engineering staff. It is perhaps a missed opportunity not to roll the policy out across the board, particularly given the decision of a number of rival banks to introduce more casual dress codes. It seems to me if Goldman Sachs wants to be able to attract the best it is going to need to move with the times. Imposing unnecessarily strict dress codes is likely to prove a turn off to both new talent as well as existing staff. Allowing individuals the opportunity to express themselves can boost staff morale, which not only helps to increase productivity but also makes the workplace more attractive.

Employers sometimes underestimate the value employees attach to workplace issues like dress codes. It’s therefore essential that organisations take time to speak to staff about their dress code, take on board any concerns, and ensure that everyone understands non-compliance is a disciplinary matter.

Whatever dress code an employer seeks to implement they need to keep potential discrimination issues in mind and ensure that their requirements are proportionate to their aim.

  • Employers do not have to apply the same requirements to men and women, provided the rules are no more stringent for one sex than the other. For example, in the professional services sector is it not uncommon for employers to specify that men must wear a suit and tie while the rules for women may state formal business attire. In that situation, while the rules differ between men and women this is unlikely to be discriminatory as it sets the same overall standard of dress.
  • Workplace dress codes remain a tricky area to navigate with regards to religious beliefs. In one European Court of Justice case the employer (G4S) had an internal rule prohibiting employees from wearing any visible signs of their political, religious or philosophical beliefs. The ECJ ruled the ban was not directly discriminatory as it applies to any manifestation of religious beliefs and therefore treats all employees in the same way. It could, however, amount to indirect discrimination, although the court considered G4S’ aim of projecting a neutral image to be potentially legitimate. However, any attempt by an employer to single out the headscarf would be both directly and indirectly discriminatory.
  • In some situations employers will be able to prevent employees from wearing religious and cultural dress where it represents a health and safety risk and/or presents security issues if it makes it hard to verify someone’s identity.
  • Whatever dress code you introduce it needs to be consistent, with a justifiable reason why it is there – for example because of health and safety reasons, because the job role requires it, or to project a certain image.

While most employees will accept that dressing a certain way for work is part of the job there will always be some that push back. If this happens and an employee isn’t following the dress code first discuss the issue with them in private and allow them to explain their point of view. If this isn’t sufficient they should be given time to comply before disciplinary action is considered. If they raise legitimate concerns about the policy you should take the time to consider the nature of their complaint before deciding on the appropriate action.

Sarah Scholfield is employment solicitor at Glaisyers

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