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Workplace appearance and dress codes

Published: 
Monday, November 7, 2016
Law Made Simple

Claire Pascall
Student, Hugh Wooding Law School

A professional dress code or appearance is not specifically defined. However, it generally means the recommended appearance within a particular work environment. The importance and rationale for implementation of a dress code in the workplace varies by industry based on the nature of the industry and is subject to interpretation of each industry. 

For example, professionalism for an employer in a bank may require an employee to wear business attire all year for the position of teller, which requires constant interaction with clients. On the other hand, professionalism for an employee who is a graphic artist in an advertising agency may call for more casual wear such as jeans and a casual shirt.

Legal position in the-workplace
Dress codes are guided by policies, practices and norms in various workplaces, which establish the reason an employer may have one. Three main reasons include:
1. To be easily identifiable. For example, an airline may require staff to wear uniforms, featuring the logo of that airline.
2. To represent an image to reflect the ethos of the organisation. This can call for the removal of certain body piercings and the covering of tattoos. 
3. Health and safety purposes. For example, firefighters are required to wear a rigid helmet, hand gloves, a belt and safety shoes.
An employer’s policy on dress code should be non-discriminatory, that is, it should apply equally to both men and women. The Equal Opportunity Act, Chap.22:03, mandates that a person should not be discriminated against on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, origin (including geographical origin) or any disability of that person.  Thus, a Rastafarian who wears “dreadlocks” based on their religion should technically not face discrimination.

For a policy to be discriminatory, it must be ‘less favourable treatment’ rather than ‘different treatment.’ 

In the UK case of Department-for-Work-and-Pensions-v-Thompson-(2004)-IRLR-348, EAT, the department required its job-centre staff to dress in a professional, business-like way. This meant that male staff were required to wear a collar and tie. The same was not required of women who were merely required to 'dress appropriately and to a similar standard'.

It was held that simply restricting members of one sex to a particular type of clothing while members of the other sex were not, did not amount to less favourable treatment. A common standard had been set for all staff and neither gender had been treated less favourably by the enforcement of that standard.

It follows that policies may have restrictions, but these restrictions must be clearly communicated and justified to the establishment of the organisation. 

Remedies
1. The High Court is not limited to employment matters and offers an alternative method of recourse to any individual. 
2. Where there is a trade dispute between employer and employee, a report can be made to the Minister of Labour who then determines whether the dispute is unresolved and refer the matter to the Industrial Court: section-59-Industrial-Relations-Act.
3. A person who alleges a discriminatory policy can lodge a written complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission detailing the alleged act: section-30-Equal-Opportunity-Act-Chap 22:03.

Compensatory damages, reinstatement and re-hiring may be awarded if a claim is successful. 
Dress codes are created to establish guidelines about what attire is acceptable or required within a particular organisation… Accept, Conform, Dress!

Editor’s note: This column is not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should consult an attorney-at-law.