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Dress Codes in the Workplace

Monday, 3 February 2014

There is no doubt that dress codes in the workplace have become more relaxed compared to the late 20th Century. Quite how relaxed they are depends of course on the employer and the type of employment - the likes of US tech companies formed the vanguard of casual office dressing decades ago but City lawyers are still unlikely to be seen visiting clients wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

There are limited legal rules governing what is or is not appropriate in a given work environment but without a clear policy it is easy for even the well versed to get things wrong. A light-hearted approach to dress code guidance for trainee lawyers was recently withdrawn by a major City law firm after the powers that be deemed it to contain misplaced humour.

With the potential for disagreements between employers and employees, even casual dress codes need serious thought.

Keep Contractual Requirements and Dress Code Policies Clear and Consistent

There are no general laws that deal with dress codes in the workplace so employers must make their particular requirements clear in employment contracts and internal policies. Health and safety needs must be taken into account where appropriate.

Once in place, contractual obligations and policies should be applied consistently. Those in charge at the aforementioned City law firm were presumably concerned that humorous quips such as, “Whatever you do, do not wear a coloured shirt with white contrasting collar. You are not an estate agent from Chelmsford”, or “Collared, cuffed and buttoned shirts are actually a little too formal for most women in the office and will make you look like a proper ‘newbie’”, were unlikely to aid in this regard.

A thoughtful approach to the needs of the working environment from the start and a common sense application of dress codes by employers and employees once implemented are usually enough to avoid problems.

Do Other Laws Need to Be Taken into Account?

Employees should comply with employers’ reasonable requirements in dress codes. Failure to do so could justify sanctions or dismissal. However, employers must also be aware of certain legal issues they may encounter when formulating dress codes.

Discrimination on grounds of sex or religion may pose difficulties for dress codes in certain circumstances. This does not mean that everyone must be allowed to wear the same clothes or that certain rules cannot be imposed on particular groups of employees, however clothing requirements must be justifiable.

Forcing people on building sites to wear hard hats is likely justifiable in most circumstances but forcing all women in an office to wear dresses may not be.


Clearly it is important for issues such as health and safety to be taken into account when considering a dress code. Equally, the effects of policies on people of a particular gender or religious belief must also be considered.

Employers should decide upon the requirements they deem appropriate for their organisation and take advice to make sure they meet current legal expectations. For more information please contact Aneil Balgobin via e-mail or by telephone on 0207 611 4848.

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