Dress Codes in the Workplace

Dress Codes in the Workplace

Once upon a time, there was no need for formal dress codes in the workplace. How so? Because, before the 1950s/1960s, we inhabited a much more formal world. Thus, un businesses, offices and shops – wearing smart clothes for work was the social norm. It was simply how it was. As this article from Xamax states: ‘From the Victorian era, right through the first half of the 20th Century, people opted for formality as a matter of course. Even painters & decorators, brickies and factory workers would wear a shirt and tie to work.’

But why and how did the need for workplace dress codes come about?

The decades since the 1950s have seen a gradual shift to smart casual or business casual – call it what you will. And the reasons for that are somewhat complicated. Sartorial formality varies between industries, companies and job-roles. Most workers, even if they spend most of their time in business casual will dress up for an important presentation. The reason for that being, as this article on Born again Swindonian explains, is that you are what you wear. And people recognise that – even if on a subconscious level.

This article from Business Insider.Com offers an interesting theory on how and why the way we dress in the workplace has transformed – some might say slipped – since the mid-20th century. Before then offices expected their staff to adhere to a dress code that today’s office workers would view as super formal.

  They posit that, and quoting The Atlantic, companies back then tended to be more process oriented. Whereas today, organizations are more results-oriented. And what results-oriented organizations care about is… well… the results. Put another way, what you achieve in the workplace rather than what you wear while you do it.

Which is all well and good. But this ultimate evolvement from dark suits, white shirts, dark ties and overcoats and a hat (for the men) and tailored suits over blouses for the women to an almost anything goes situation is a workplace dress code headache for the HR manager.

It’s important to note here though, that workplace formality remains in some areas: banking, accounting and the legal profession for example.

A HR headache

According to ACAS, dress codes and the workplace appearance of staff are becoming ever-more important. This is, in part, because of the media highlighting legal cases between employers and employees about what constitutes an acceptable workplace dress code.

A workplace might have a uniform for its workers to communicate a corporate image and make them identifiable to its customers. Or a manager might bring in a dress code for health and safety reasons. But whatever dress code a company introduces it must not discriminate in respect of the 2010 Equality Act and the nine defined protected characteristics of:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Race
  • Religion or belief system
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marriage & Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy & Maternity

Dress Codes in the Workplace

 In this respect, this YouTube video from ACAS, What Should I Wear at Work, is worth a watch: 



Dress Down Friday and Exceptions to the rule

 Workplaces that have a more formal dress code from Monday to Thursday may have a Dress Down Fridaypolicy. Or even a stipulation that everyone wears the strip of the local football team on Friday. If you’re a manager you might want to consider the effect on morale such a stipulation might have on a staff member that loathes football clothing, that particular team or football in general. This would apply to any other stipulation that might be well meant and light-hearted, but employees should not feel obliged to comply with.

Supporting charities

Something else for you, as HR manager, to have awareness of is the times when your employees wish to support charities in a way that needs exceptions to normal dress code rules. That’s something we’ve touched on this blog about why celebrating festivals in the workplace is good for business. Christmas Jumper Day and Jeans for Genes Day are two such occasions.

Dress Codes in the Workplace - jeans and belt

Then there’s the issues of religious dress and tattoos and piercings to consider. As ACAS point out, some employers might wish to include issues around religious dress in their polices. But they advise treading with care in this area.

Apropos tattoos and piercings, it might be that you, the employer, might wish to promote a certain image through your staff that reflects the ethos of your organization. This can mean you ask them to remove piercings or cover tattoos in the workplace – in particular if in a customer-facing role.

If you do want to adopt a dress or appearance code then you must have it written down in a policy that you communicate to all your staff. That way they’ll have full understanding of what you expect from them.

It’s not hard to see how tricky this might be. But rather than risk getting it wrong why not let Go-Legal’s HR expertise navigate you through the dress-code policy minefield. All our contact information is here. 

Get in touch now and let’s get your dress-code policy ironed out before you find yourself getting a dressing-down from a disgruntled employee.