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Workplace dress code

Why can’t I wear this to work?

I often think how lucky my husband is because he wears a uniform to work. He doesn’t have to think about shirts and matching ties, or which shoes to wear!

But what if my decisions were a little more complicated? Can one show a tattoo, or a body piercing at work? As many people would answer ‘yes’ as they would ‘no’ to this question, but to a certain degree it does depend upon the job you are doing.

Most staff handbooks set out what an employer’s policy is on appearance and dress at work and the amount of detail will no doubt be dictated by the nature of an employer’s business and whether or not the employee meets the public. This is further complicated by the now common place casual dress on Fridays.

Employers no doubt wish for their employees to work comfortably in the workplace, yet want all employees to project a professional image to customers and the community generally.

Dress code controversies are common and in some ways are self perpetuating. The more complicated the policy, the more troublesome they can be. Some companies when putting a dress code policy in writing cover the types of clothes employees are allowed to wear, their cut, the fabric, the logo and more. Pretty quickly, an otherwise reasonable policy can become caught up in whether denim blue jeans are actually blue and whether deck shoes are classed as trainers.

In my view, short and clear guidelines are the best, i.e. ‘no jeans’ instead of ‘smart jeans’, or ‘no blue jeans’.

Another common issue that many employers face in today’s modern culture is whether to allow tattoos and body piercings. Under UK law, it is likely that employees have no legal right to show body art in the workplace because it isn’t considered a religious or racial expression.

While employers seemingly have the legal right to require employees to cover or remove tattoos or piercings, a reasonable approach would be to base your policy on the nature of your workplace and set the grooming standards accordingly. You must also bear in mind Health and Safety when making these decisions.

There is no discrimination law yet in Jersey. Sex discrimination (along with other forms of discrimination) will no doubt become part of Jersey Law when the discrimination law is enacted and if an employer’s dress code requires all staff, both male and female, to dress in a professional and business-like way, it will be for the employment tribunal to decide whether such a policy is unlawful sex discrimination.

At employment contract level, it is clear that an employer has an inherent power to dictate the rules governing the dress and appearance of its employees. These rules must however be reasonable and cannot be oppressive or undermine personal dignity. They must also reasonably relate to the employees job that they carry out.

In the UK an employer must not apply rules governing dress and appearance which discriminate between different individuals on one of the prohibited grounds which cannot be justified. In practice, the greatest difficulty is caused by rules which formally differentiate between the sexes.

Whatever the business justifications for dress codes, there is an argument to the effect that dress codes, at least in certain forms, strengthen sex based stereotypes of the kind which it is the purpose of the law to undermine. In the UK tribunals have struggled to find a clear line which might successfully reconcile these two positions and no doubt this is a position which in time is likely to appear in Jersey.

Be practical, reasonable and consistent with your business dress code policy and you will have a good head start for when the discrimination legislation is enacted.

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