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Clothes make the man – and the workplace

Q: As our practice has expanded we have more clients come and visit our offices. We have always had a relaxed dress code and I think now is a good time to implement rules of minimum standards. How do I implement a suitable dress code policy and police it?

A: As an employer you are entitled to have a dress code and to enforce it, especially if you have clients visiting your offices. However, it is vital that it is enforced equally. Standards of dress and personal presentation are important, and many companies use their discretion to impose dress codes or uniforms upon staff.

Any dress code you introduce needs to be stipulated in staff handbooks and made clear to new workers. If you choose to set out rules relating to clothing and appearance, remember these must be both necessary for, and appropriate to, your employees’ job. If an employee chooses to ignore the dress code and refuses to adhere to it, you are able to begin disciplinary procedures questioning the reasons for non-compliance. However, you must ensure that you have enforced the dress code equally in order to bring about disciplinary procedures against an employee.

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Where you have no clear rules, it is likely to be implied into the contract of employment that your employees will dress in a manner both suitable and appropriate to your business. If they have consistently adhered to this implied manner of dress, then through custom and practice, this would become a contractual term.

While it may seem obvious, it is important that you communicate your rules with your staff. Dress codes can extend well beyond restrictions on clothing to cover, for example, styles and length of hair, facial hair, piercing and make-up. So it is important you are aware that dress codes that unreasonably restrict employees’ personal freedom can lead to tension in the workplace and potential liability for unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, race discrimination and religious discrimination. It is therefore beneficial that these points are thought about when drafting your dress code in order to make it effective.

Remember, even if dress rules are justifiable, you must consider legitimate objections. For instance, if compliance results in an employee suffering discomfort or ill-health, your employee may be reasonable in refusing to adhere to the rules.

Some companies do allow for dressing down on occasion, for example, ‘dress-down Friday’, and these can be a beneficial addition to your business. Employees are made to feel they have some personal freedom in the way they dress and such ‘casual wear’ days often promote better compliance with a stricter dress code as employees will often feel a sense of compromise in the policy.

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula