Are dress codes in need of modernisation?

Last week, the speaker of the House of Commons said male MPs no longer need to wear a tie in the chamber.  

It comes after Liberal Democrat Tom Brake MP asked a question in the House of Commons Chamber and was spotted not wearing a tie.

In line with parliamentary custom, male MPs are required to wear a jacket and tie and women are expected to wear clothes of an equivalent level of formality. However, Mr Bercow said that as long as MPs are in “businesslike attire”, he would still call an MP to speak.

This prompted the MD of a tie manufacturer to comment “Are they going to start wearing tracksuits next?”. For some staunch traditionalists, wearing a tie is an absolute must and include this in their company’s dress code. Other employers have strayed away from ties and embraced a more relaxed “smart casual” dress code, accepting men to wear open shirts and wide necked t-shirts and jumpers.

So have we entered an age when ties are now outdated? Do workplaces across the country need to rethink their dress code and bring it into 2017?

In the news

Dress codes have been in the spotlight for the past year or so.

Last year, a receptionist was sent home from work for not wearing a two to four inch heel, triggering widespread debate about whether current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist. A petition was set up trying to make it against the law for employers to require women to wear high heels at work. This was later debated in parliament.

In January 2017, the Women and Equalities Commission and the Petitions Commission was concerned that the law was not providing sufficient protection to employees from discriminatory dress codes. The government responded that all employers should re-assess their dress codes to ensure they are “relevant and lawful”. They concluded that the law is “adequate”, but they admitted that some employers are not aware of the law or deliberately choose to break it. They will be releasing guidance this summer to raise awareness of employers’ obligations and employees’ rights.

Can you force your employers to wear what you want?

Employers have significant discretion to decide on the best dress code for their business. What matters, from a legal perspective, is that the rules are reasonable and non-discriminatory and they should be included in your Employee Handbook.

When you are considering dress code rules, you should think about the reason behind them. Are ties required to portray a corporate image? Have you banned loose clothing because it poses a risk when they are operating machinery? Or have you stated that long hair needs to be tied back because hygiene is of paramount importance?

Remember, employers can set different requirements for men and women, but they cannot treat one gender less favourably otherwise they may face discrimination claims.  Even having a seemingly innocuous requirement to wear “smart dress and skirts for women and trousers for men” could amount to indirect discrimination against religious groups where it is not acceptable for women to wear skirts.

Over the summer months, employers may decide to make certain allowances to help employees cope with hot days. You might consider shorts, strappy tops, short skirts or flip flops is going too far, but let them lose the tie or jacket or wear more open shoes. However, this may not always be possible, for example, health and safety may dictate that the employee must always wear protective clothing or for public facing roles, formal dress is necessary.

If an employee does turn up to work wearing something that is not in line with your dress code, you can pull them aside discretely and remind them of the policy and what is considered to be acceptable dress. For first minor breaches it would be inappropriate to formally discipline them, but if employees continue to not respect the dress code then you can take formal disciplinary action.

To discuss your dress code requirements, speak to your Employment Law Adviser for guidance.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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