In 2020 and the age of COVID, does dress code at work still matter?

Much depends on the industry and the setting. No one would say it’s unreasonable to expect someone working in a kitchen to tie their hair back, or to wear sturdy boots on a building site. But there are many shades of grey – from beards to head coverings, jewellery to heels, and what comprises business casual. Employers therefore need to give a definite steer on how they require their employees to dress for work.

Some sectors dictate what people wear. Take a law practice in central London, for example. A few years ago everyone would have been wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit, probably from Savile Row, and usually complete with hanky in the top pocket, because this was the uniform of the city lawyer. Today the dress code is still business smart, but much less formal. Conversely some people actively choose to work for certain companies because of their laid-back culture, which includes a relaxed and casual approach to business dress.

Every employer should have a legally-compliant dress code policy that doesn’t leave them exposed to potential discrimination claims. Gender, race, religion and ethnicity tend to be the areas where sensitive issues arise, so it’s important to be mindful of this as you put your policy together, seeking advice where necessary. However simple or extensive you choose to make it, the policy must be clear, comprehensive and well communicated from the outset of employment for a new recruit, avoiding ambiguity, so they understand exactly what the requirements are.

As an employer, a dress code policy gives you the security to try and deal with a situation informally first, knowing it can be escalated if required. It also lends clarity to your business, setting the tone and endorsing the culture you’re keen to create. One policy might simply reference hygiene, and ‘tidy’ or ‘appropriate’ clothing. Another might say business casual is acceptable in the office, but a suit is essential for all offsite work or client meetings. And all policies should contain guidance on dressing for hot weather. This summer many of us were working at home, but is it ever appropriate to wear flip flops and shorts to the office? Being explicit as to exactly how the dress code will be relaxed as temperatures soar – perhaps that shorts are allowed but they should be smart and knee-length – will save many headaches.

Some companies have a combined policy, where it’s not just about defining clothing, but overall appearance and the way an individual represents the business. Again, this needs to be carefully thought through and communicated to avoid pitfalls. If, for example, you were to include a clause to say there’s no objection to the wearing of jewellery, but it should not cause danger or be detrimental to overall appearance. The health and safety element makes sense, but ‘detrimental to overall appearance’ could be challenged unless the policy is watertight. 

Once in place, it’s important to review your policy on a regular basis to make sure it’s still relevant, and that’s been especially applicable this year with so many people working from home due to the pandemic. And something worth considering, if you’re not sure what your dress code should be, go smart initially…you can always relax it later.

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