This time last year, Jeremy Paxman caused a social media storm when he suddenly appeared on Newsnight sporting a full facial beard, and stories of people having been fired or overlooked for promotion owing to visible tattoos or piercings are not uncommon.
The issue of keeping up appearances while staying within the law continues to cause headaches for employers and the latest guidance from Acas has perhaps not been as helpful as it could have been. The reality is, however, that dress codes present a potentially complex issue due to the conflict between the demands and standards of the workplace and the right of employees to personal and religious expression.
Lack of consistency in recent case law has put further pressure on employers to handle this issue carefully, and to implement clear and appropriate dress code policies. So let’s see if we can help shed some light over the issue.
Front line employees project the employer’s corporate image which usually means following a recognisable or distinctive, and indeed safe, dress code. Yet employers are regularly challenged with a degree of uncertainty regarding which demands are fair and indeed legal to impose on staff – especially when it comes to displays of religious faith and body art.
Recent case law suggests that, in many instances, it is acceptable to allow an individual to demonstrate their religious faith through their dress as long as it does not inhibit them from carrying out their role or compromises any health and safety policies.
One of the common mistakes employers make is to devise and implement a new dress code without consulting employees first. The guidance from Acas suggests that consulting with employees over the aims and purpose of any proposed dress code at the pre-implementation stage will help ensure that it is reasonable. Importantly, this approach will also help identify anyone who may find it problematic to adhere to.
Employers must be able to justify their reasons for prohibiting articles of clothing or jewellery which denote a particular religious faith. Otherwise, they could face a claim indirect discrimination against certain groups of employees.
Striking the right balance between promoting diversity and encouraging equality is tricky but the key is to make sure genuine business or safety requirements underpin any restrictions imposed. One key question has been asked to help clarify this issue in many recent and well-publicised cases, whether it involves flight attendants wearing necklaces bearing a cross or primary school teachers wearing a full veil: “Does the particular article inhibit the individual from doing their job to the required standard in this particular working environment?”
Tattoos and body piercings
It is not uncommon for customer-facing employees to be required to remove jewellery, including body piercings, and to cover tattoos in the workplace.
As it stands, there is no specific legal protection for an employee who has been dismissed for having a tattoo. Having said that, it is worth bearing in mind that some tattoos are symbolic, religious requirements and even culturally significant, so handling any such issue should be done with great care and sensitivity.
Key points for employers
Although the Acas guidance may not provide any specific answers to some of the more sensitive issues employers need to consider, there are a number of key points that employers should consider when implementing or amending a dress code:
- Always avoid any form of discrimination in a dress code policy
- Imposing certain standards of dress for health and safety reasons is acceptable
- Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements
- Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people
Crucially, always make sure that there is a sound business reason for imposing personal appearance criterion on staff, and that a clear written policy has been implemented and widely communicated.
Finally, avoid the greatest pitfall of all: believing that clients will automatically take offence to an employee’s personal appearance or religious faith. Instead, embrace the notion that a rich and diverse workforce might in fact translate to an equally rich and diverse client or customer base.
If you have any questions please contact employment partner Sarah Tahamtani on 0113 336 3314.
Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.