Dressing up… dressing down…
Most staff in the larger retail chains, banks, restaurants, etc. are wearing uniforms of some description. Most professions expect, well, professional attire (and then not infrequently tie themselves in knots trying to define “professional”). The underpinning motivation is to make it easy for customers to a) identify, and b) trust your people. But is imposing a dress code the way to go? As ever, there are pros and cons…
Customers and dress codes
Unless you’re asking your people to dress up in something ridiculous or inappropriate, the impact of a dress code on your customers is likely to be positive:
- Professionalism – However you define professional in your business or sector, it’s possible to find a mode of dress that fits. Clothes that reinforce an impression of professionalism have an impact on the customer (like it or not, we’re dealing in stereotypes: imagine you arrive for an appointment with your solicitor and they’re wearing overalls; or you call a plumber and they arrive wearing a three-piece suit…?!)
- Trust – A familiar uniform or outfit is recognised and can create trust, whether the customer has met that particular individual before or not.
Employees and dress codes
For employees, a dress code comes with both advantages and disadvantages; often depending on individual attitudes to being ‘told what to wear’:
- Team spirit – Just as in sports, a team of people wearing the same outfit are more likely to feel part of a team, of a joint endeavour.
- Safety – It’s not all just a question of appearance. In sectors such as construction, safety gear (helmet, goggles/glasses, boots, etc.) may be mandatory; in catering, it might be gloves and hair nets for food preparation… Effectively, it forms part of your dress code and as such, keeps employees safe.
- Cost-effective – For some people, not having to decide what to wear to work is one less headache. And if a uniform is supplied by the employer, they’re not having to buy clothes specifically for work.
- “Clothes maketh the man” – From Shakespeare to Mark Twain to Erasmus, plenty have observed the truth that our attire impacts both how we are perceived and how we feel. How do you need your team to feel? What clothes would help? This self-perception (e.g. I’m dressed like a lawyer, therefore I feel like a lawyer) can put the person ‘into character’ in their job role and actually boost productivity.
- Practicality – If you want your employees to happily comply with a dress code, it better be practical; i.e. is it comfortable to wear while carrying out their duties?
- Ready to wear OR reluctant to wear? – Any uniform won’t be to the personal taste of some employees. Or there’ll be resistance because a dress code is seen as an unnecessary form of control, or they just don’t like the style of what you’re asking them to wear.
The legal position
The guidance makes it clear that an employee has the right to set standards, “about what is appropriate for employees to wear to work.” However, those standards must fit the nature of the work and, importantly, must not apply different standards based on gender (as an example, it specifically states, “It is best to avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements, for example the requirement to wear high heels. Any requirement to wear make-up, skirts, have manicured nails, certain hairstyles or specific types of hosiery is likely to be unlawful.” Usually, it’s easiest not to make distinctions between genders in a dress code.
Another ‘hot topic’ in the past is the wearing of religious items (e.g. hijab, yarmulke, turban, crucifixes, etc.) and whether they can be prohibited by an employer. The guidance clearly recommends that if a religious item doesn’t interfere with the individual’s work then a ban would be inappropriate.
In some sectors, dress codes are probably unlikely to change anytime soon (e.g. doctors are likely to continue wearing white coats) but in others, the 21st century is seeing a move away from dress codes for the sake of dress codes. As with most things, it comes down to a) having an identifiable business benefit, and b) ensuring that your code does not discriminate or otherwise treat employees differently or unfairly.