Employers called on to ‘act consistently’ over clothing-related comments in the workplace

More than a third (39 per cent) of workers would prefer to wear a compulsory uniform than have to navigate a casual dress code, research has revealed.

Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of the 2,023 respondents surveyed by personalised clothing retailer Banana Moon also said they had received comments about their appearance at work that made them feel uncomfortable, and 36 per cent feel judged on what they wear to work.

Hilary Aldred, partner in Penningtons Manches’ employment team, told People Management that employers should determine whether comments breached their equality or other policies, and take action accordingly. “It is vital employers act consistently with comments raised, rather than risk arguments about inconsistency of treatment,” she said. “Before it gets to that, it would be better to educate staff not just on what to wear but on making sure that comments are kept within acceptable boundaries.”

Laura Allner, employment lawyer and senior associate at CMS, added that, if inappropriate comments do occur, HR should take steps to address these as a disciplinary matter.  “It is important, however, not to overreact,” she urged. “In some cases, it may be appropriate to ask an employee not to dress in a certain way. However, if the comments being made are derogatory or offensive, disciplinary action is likely to be appropriate.”

Banana Moon also discovered that nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of men and more than a fifth (21 per cent) of women have been told off for wearing the ‘wrong’ clothing to work.

However, Allner noted that, although employees seemed to be struggling with vague dress codes, prescriptive measures might not be the right answer either.  “We’ve already seen some heavily prescribed dress codes being called out for being sexist, or for religious discrimination,” she said. “Many organisations now opt to forego a written dress code altogether, relying on employees to attire themselves suitably.  Where an organisation still wants to have some guidelines, it would be advisable to specify that certain things that are not acceptable – for example, denim or flip flops – taking into account whether or not the rule is justifiable.”

Alan Delaney, director of employment, pensions and immigration at Maclay Murray & Spens, added: “The right tone is important so that the policy does not seem overbearing but is simply reflecting good common sense and is helpful to employees. This is key to avoiding potentially embarrassing situations where staff need to be told off for what they are wearing.” 

Goldman Sachs recently relaxed its historically strict dress code in an attempt to woo young tech workers. However, the memo announcing the change still urged staff to don smarter attire when the situation called for it.

Despite recommendations from parliamentary committees for stronger laws around workplace clothing regulations, the government is planning only to issue guidelines with a view to helping employers manage problems arising from dress codes. This means businesses can continue to make it a requirement for female employees to wear heels, for example, providing it is considered a job requirement and men are made to dress to an "equivalent level of smartness”.

The government guidance came in the wake of a petition signed by more than 152,000 people to ban compulsory high heels at work.


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