Dress codes and the law

dress codes law

In light of the recent row over a temp worker being dismissed for refusing to wear high heels at work, we thought we’d delve into the laws behind dress codes. Where is the line between a uniform and a dress code? When can a dress code be sexist or discriminatory? How should dress codes apply to disabled people? Let’s find out.

Dress codes are very common

Dress codes are used in a range of different workplaces and there are many reasons why an employer may have one. For example, dress codes can be useful if an employee needs to be easily identified by a customer, or if the company has a certain brand image. For corporate businesses, a dress code will usually be smart, such as a suit or tie. This is because of the need to be professional.

Dress codes are also used by employers for health and safety reasons. For instance, people that handle food may be told not to wear jewellery or to tie their hair back, and in factories where heavy or complex machinery is used, certain types of clothing might be banned, such as long sleeves or baggy clothes that could become trapped.

There are rules

The good news is that UK Employment Law is very clear on what employers can and cannot do when it comes to a dress code. A few of the key rules are:

  • Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy.
  • Employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain standards.
  • Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements.
  • Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

Discrimination or sexism

One thing a dress code should never be is discriminatory. A dress code should also apply to both men and women equally. However, standards can be slightly different depending on your gender, just as long as they are the same level of expectation. So for example, if a company’s dress code is “corporate” or “smart”, that must apply to both men and women equally, but in different ways, such as a tie for a man, and a business dress or suit for women. Both are equally smart, but aligned with each gender.

However, let’s say the company policy is “casual”, where men can wear t-shirts and smart jeans but women are still expected to wear a certain type of dress. This is when a dress code is discriminatory, or in this case, sexist. Other examples of sexism in dress code would be asking employees of one gender to dress provocatively, or to wear a uniform that is outside their personal standard of what is appropriate.

Another aspect that employers have to be aware of is that a dress code or uniform should not cause harm or impact health. For instance, in the case of Ms Thorpe, and the row over high heels, she was being asked to work 9-hour days in heels escorting clients back and forth from meetings. This puts severe strain on the feet. In these cases, a dress code should always be in tune with the level of work required.

Religious clothing

One aspect that employers should always take into account when designing a policy is that some employees may dress a certain way for religious reasons. Employers are advised to tread cautiously in this area as individual employees should be allowed to wear articles of clothing if there is a religious reason. If the items need to be banned for a real business or safety reasons, then employers will need to justify the reasons to make sure they are not indirectly discriminating against religious employees. In most cases religious items are subtle and won’t interfere with business or corporate dress codes.

The only exception to this is when it comes down to health and safety. Workers can be asked not to wear certain items of clothing that could be deemed a safety risk, such as loose clothing may be a hazard if operating machinery. In these circumstances, if employees who do not comply with such standards, it may result in a disciplinary hearing.

Seasonal dress codes

Most employers take a more casual approach to dress during the summer, or even allow a few Christmas jumpers in December, but this will depend on the nature of the business. Some employers may require staff to be smart every day of the year because of the nature of the work, such as sales representatives who meet with clients on a daily basis. In these situations, seasonal dress codes may not apply.

Exceptions to the rule

There may be times when employees wish to wear certain clothing to support a cause, an occasion, or a charity. For example, something red on Red Nose Day, jeans on jeans day, or, again, a Christmas jumper. In these cases, permission and authorisation must be sought from a manager or from the company.

Tattoos and body piercings

For businesses that want to display a certain image or brand through their workers, this can mean that staff have to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work.

Employers may believe they have a reasonable business reason for this, especially when employees are usually customer-facing, but employers need to be careful when considering the reasons behind such rules. As with religious dress, there needs to be a sound safety or business reason for it.

A clear dress code policy is always needed

In all cases, an employer needs to set out a clear policy for what is and isn’t allowed, and at what times the dress code is expected to be adhered to. It’s a good idea for employers to consult with their staff over any proposed dress code. That way it makes sure that the code is acceptable to everybody concerned. Once agreed it should be communicated to all employees.


If you’re an employee or employer, and have a question about dress code policies, then get in touch with us for easy, quick and expert legal advice. We’re around 7 days a week and always ready to help. You can call us on 0203 002 4898, or email advice@wetalklaw.co.uk. You can also find more on our Employment Law pages.

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