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10th September 2013

Address the need for a code

As a student, I once spent a day as the guest of the owner (no less) of a New Jersey Department store. The suit came out of my backpack and, as I wandered the aisles, customers repeatedly approached me for information. An English suit was code for manager, or at least code for staff.

Setting a dress code today can be problematic. New social norms, multi-cultural and religious dress, expectations of services users, and potential discrimination, all offer possible difficulties. But it is undoubtedly better to set a code before a problem arises than to draft one hastily when faced with a challenge. The very existence of a code, applied consistently, implies validity and acceptance. It can be tested on, or better still evolved through discussion with, existing staff.

The key point about a dress code is to have sound reasons for your requirements. The types of reasons likely to be acceptable include the need for modesty of dress (e.g. to sensitive elderly people), uniforms for ease of identifying job roles (e.g. care workers or domestics), good presentation to service users (e.g. no jeans), health reasons (such as risk of transfer of infection), or safety (e.g. risk of slips or trips from unsuitable footwear). Whatever requirements you place in your dress code, it is best to have some thought as to how you would justify each condition objectively if called on to do so.

Where there is conflict on religious or other discriminatory grounds, making minor concessions for sound specific reasons should not undermine your policy. The Equality and Human Rights Commission website (a valuable source of guidance) suggests a concession might be allowed for a male to not wear a tie if doing so would exacerbate a skin condition in a particular instance.

Lastly, following a recent case (Begum v Pedagogy Auras Ltd t/a Barley Lane Montessori Day Nursery) it has been established that it is not discriminatory to discuss dress with job applicants. It would, nevertheless, be wise to be sensitive in such discussions and to have your reasons for any possible restrictions clear in your own mind first.

Malcolm Martin - QCS Expert Contributor on Human Resources

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