Fashion Victim – new employment rights blog

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“I was interested to receive an e-mail from ACAS advising that new guidance had been published on dress codes, tattoos and piercings in the workplace.  It made me reflect on my own attire for our charity dress down days at the end of the month – how much could I really get away with? Flip-flops and shorts in summer? Woolly hat indoors in the winter? Could I now get that tattoo I wanted when I was a teenager? 
So I read the guidance hoping there’d be some clear instructions to help me tailor my wardrobe to suit – but I was disappointed.
There are some key principles employers must adhere to but no detailed rules. It is for the employer to set the standards that will apply.
ACAS says employers must – 
  • avoid unlawful discrimination in relation to any dress code,
  • consider health and safety,
  • apply the dress codes to men and women equally and
  • make reasonable adjustments for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

These are all very sensible suggestions. But I still wasn’t sure what I could and couldn’t wear.

A number of Tribunal cases have given more specific examples. In Smith –v- Safeway Plc (1996) a male employee of Safeway on the deli counter was dismissed because the length of his pony tail fell below his deli hat. This contravened his employer’s rule, which required employees to dress in a smart and conventional way. Mr Smith thought it was unfair and argued sex discrimination but he failed. The Court of Appeal decided that since the dress code was applied equally to persons of both sexes (i.e. both sexes were required to dress in a conventional way) it was not discriminatory.
So employers might be allowed to apply different standards to female and male employees if the dress code enforces a common principle.  However, it isn’t always easy to get the balance right.  In DWP v Thompson the Claimant received a warning for refusing to wear a collar and tie, when female employees were not required to wear them. The Tribunal confirmed the proper approach was whether the level of smartness required by the employer could only be achieved by requiring men to wear a collar and tie. If it could be achieved by other means the inflexibility might amount to sex discrimination.
Azmi –v- Kirklees Metropolitan Council reminds us of the potential for religious discrimination issues to arise. In this case a Muslim woman was not allowed to wear a veil at work when teaching (but was allowed to wear it at other times).  When she refused to comply with the request, the school suspended her and she pursued claims of discrimination on grounds of her religion and belief. Ms Azmi’s claims failed – the rights of employees to manifest their religion at work are subject to their being able to perform the role they are employed to carry out. The employer in this case had evidence of a detrimental impact on teaching and their request was proportionate.  
ACAS emphasises that any restriction on clothing or jewellery that manifests religious faith must be based on a legitimate business or safety requirement. Employees might be allowed to demonstrate their religious faith through their dress by wearing an unobtrusive cross symbol to denote religious faith (clear reference to Eweida –v- British Airways Plc). However, where health and safety is concerned, it might lead to a different outcome (for example in theChaplin case where a risk of infection and patients grabbing a necklace outweighed the right of this nurse to manifest her religion by wearing a necklace with a cross symbol). Tackling these thorny issues of religious and sex discrimination is not really made any easier by the ACAS guidance.  
Some cases might be straightforward. One can imagine how necklaces or dangly body piercings in some industries (e.g. manufacturing) might not be allowed. Nobody wants to find an earring in their pasta salad and no worker would want to risk the danger of their necklace getting caught in a conveyor belt. Wearing flip flops on a construction site is just silly. What the ACAS guidance does at least achieve is prompting employers to think about it. Employees should know why the employer believes it is dangerous or unhygienic or unprofessional to wear certain jewellery or items of clothing and this can be written in a policy. ACAS even suggests employees get involved in helping the employer create such policies. But once the employer thinks about it, will it be put off by the complications? Once it is in writing, etched like a tattoo permanently in their policy booklet, the employer might lose the element of discretion which can create a more relaxed and pleasant working environment.  
But there is no doubt that an employer’s image is important – and when it comes to tattoos, it’s all about image. Footballers, film stars, music stars – everyone seems to have tattoos. Apparently one in five British people are thought to have tattoos and they’re most popular in 30 to 39 year olds. ACAS guidance suggests employers need a ‘sound business reason’ for asking that tattoos be covered up. Given their popularity and prominence are they really a problem? Do they really give the impression a person is less professional or less competent than the next or does it show artistic flare and creativity? It’s tricky and the guidance from ACAS is brief. Ultimately it is for the employer to decide on its tattoo policy and I expect it would in most cases be difficult for an employee to take action if the same policy is applied to men and women.
Dress codes aren’t easy to get right – they need to be tailored to suit the business. But I think I’ll be happy to leave my shorts and flip flops for the beach, my woolly hat for winter walks and tattoos for the celebs.” 
This blog was written by Daniel Kindell – Associate Solicitor at Morrish Solicitors
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