Dress Sense

By Cirell, Stephen; Bennett, John | Public Finance, April 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Dress Sense


Cirell, Stephen, Bennett, John, Public Finance


The public sector is a significant employer and as such is continually striving to improve its human resources strategies. One HR area that has recently become controversial is dress at work. This can cover appearance, such as body piercings, tattoos, visible underwear and unusual hair designs and colours, as well as clothing.

More and more stories about workplace dress codes are hitting the headlines, mainly because of legal action taken by disenchanted workers. Most of these cases are based on claims that an employer has breached anti-discrimination laws.

Organisations can reduce their chances of being on the wrong end of a tribunal claim by ensuring their personal appearance code is consistent, sensitive and flexible.

Applying different standards to people doing the same job can lead to legal action. For example, requiring men to adopt a more formal appearance than women will open the door to claims of sex discrimination. This is illustrated by the cases of Pell v Wagstaff and Jarman v The Link Stores Ltd. In the first, a male employee was not allowed to wear his hair long whereas women were, and in the second a male worker was disciplined for wearing an earring.

In both cases, the tribunals found unlawful sex discrimination and were unconvinced by the employers' arguments that they were applying conventional standards of dress and appearance.

The opposite can also apply. In Hutcheson v Graham and Morion Ltd, a female manager was made to wear the same sort of nylon overalls as members of her team. In contrast, male managers were able to wear suits. A tribunal said this was sex discrimination because it implied Hutcheson was of a lower status.

It is also important to bear in mind that standards change. For example, in 1977, a female worker's complaint about not being able to wear trousers to work was rejected by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (Schmidt v Austicks Bookshop). Twenty-three years later, however, a tribunal upheld a claim of sex discrimination from a female employee who was told to change her smart trouser suit for a skirt (Owen v Professional Golf Association).

This is not the end of the story, however. The law recognises that different people and groups have different needs and priorities. So a dress code that appears neutral at first sight could still be unlawful if it disadvantages, say, members of a particular racial, ethnic or religious group. Organisations need to be sensitive to the requirements and conventions of all cultures, religions and similar belief systems.

An excellent round-up of the common practices of the religions and beliefs most practised in the UK can be found in guidance published by Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. …

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