New research for Acas examined the ways in which dress codes and appearance policies impact on organisations and employees.

Following a number of recent high profile legal cases on dress codes and appearance at work the study reiterates the need for organisations to be aware are the legal issues. In particular, the study’s conclusions remind employers that while they may argue that a certain dress code is required to promote the organisations image that may not be enough to defend a legal claim where the code results in less favourable treatment. For example, where the dress code prohibits certain kinds of ethnic dress.

The study considers it would be beneficial for employers to review their implicit norms and explicit dress codes on a regular basis and involve employees in that process. Indeed the report concludes that, “our cases revealed that consultation processes with staff associations and/or trade unions in relation to company dress and appearance policy would be advantageous.” It suggests that in a modern progressive and multicultural society employers should reasonably accommodate the wishes of workers with respect to dress or appearance unless there is some “compelling business case not to” and gives the following guidelines for employers managing dress and appearance in the workplace:

  • Provide ongoing training to deal with unconscious bias and discrimination,
    particularly for individuals on selection panels and for line managers who handle day-to-day issues relating to dress and appearance.
  • Consider how organisational dress and appearance policies might
    disproportionately impact on particular groups or individuals (e.g. in terms of
    gender, age, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic background). Accordingly, seek to review practices and display some flexibility to accommodate employee preferences.
  • In relation to health and safety, make codes explicit, educate employees and
    maintain even-handed enforcement.
  • Where uniforms are stipulated, feedback should be elicited on its comfort and
  • Provide opportunities for staff to participate in determining appearance policies and a forum to voice their preferences and grievances, either individually or through staff associations and trade unions.

Acas in its on line guidance points out that although dress codes are used for a variety of reasons – from communicating a corporate image to ensuring health and safety at work – they must relate to the job and be reasonable in nature. For instance, kitchen workers can reasonably be expected to tie their hair back or cover it for hygiene reasons.

However, it also warns employers to be careful that the code does not discriminate in any way in respect of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. For instance, on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation. Particular care needs to be taken in relation to religious dress and ACAS advises employers to think carefully about the image they want to convey and about how they can work with employees to allow them to manifest their faith in a way that does not conflict with this rather than providing a very strict and limiting dress code.

Jo Seery of Thompsons Solicitors said: “Parliament is due to debate dress codes following a petition by an employee who was required to wear high heels at work. Employers should take the opportunity to review their own dress codes to ensure that they do not discriminate because of a protected characteristic”

To read the report in full, go to:

ACAS guidance is at