Back in the 1990s I worked for a law firm in Glasgow, Scotland, which provided suits for female support staff as a way of imposing a dress code. It wasn’t a uniform as it didn’t carry any corporate branding or logo and we had to pay tax for the clothing.
A situation in the past week, which made the headlines in the UK got me wondering about dress codes and imposing controls on how we dress. In my personal blog today I look at Police Scotland’s proposal to introduce a clean shaven policy coming into effect at the end of May. You can read my blog to find out more about this case and why I think it may be a bad move for Police Scotland.
I don’t have to wear a uniform today and there is no formal dress code for most of us at work (some support staff have to wear uniforms and some lecturers require to do so too (beauty lecturers, hospitality/catering lecturers etc). Although I would say that being a business lecturer, there is an expectation for us to be dressed in a business-like manner – acting as a role model for our students. But then again, I wonder how much of that is changing. As indicated above, my background before teaching was working as a legal secretary. Professional firms such as solicitors tend to be slower to respond and will require a more traditional approach. Certainly in the 1980s/1990s we would not be allowed to wear trousers and I seem to remember not being allowed to wear sandals or bare legs in the summer.
My 1990s employer introduced their dress code to control how the office juniors were dressing, and to control the length of the skirt (it was not allowed to be above the knee). Despite being a law firm, they were actually breaching the law and had one of the male support staff claimed sex discrimination because they weren’t provided with suits, the company would have lost.
With dress codes and uniforms its important that organisations are reasonable with their requests and don’t discriminate against any of their employees.
Why have a dress code?
There are many reasons why companies may introduce a dress code or provide uniforms: branding, corporate image, health and safety. We’ll now have a look at the arguments for each of these in turn.
In some customer facing roles organisations prefer that their staff wear a uniform. Staff such as those in supermarkets, hospitality and restaurants, for example. It means that we, the customers, can recognise and identify their staff easily when we need to find someone.
I suspect there are some roles where traditionally uniforms have always been worn, so we simply expect these people to be in uniform. There will be others where there will be aspects of health & safety built into their uniform (PPE for example). Examples here would include our emergency services, medical staff.
For most of us, its easy to recognise who an employee represents because their uniform usually also carries branding or a logo for the organisation, along with corporate colours. Its amazing how powerful corporate colours can be; while I indicated we don’t typically have a uniform for all staff at the college, we comment on people wearing corporate colours if they turn up to work wearing purple. So from a corporate point of view, staff wearing the corporate colours is a strong branding exercise.
Organisations will be aware that their employees represent them, both in what they say and do, and in their appearance. As much as we say we shouldn’t judge people, first impressions count and organisations desire to create the ‘right’ impression with their customers. To do that some organisations will use uniforms, but others give their employees the freedom to wear their own clothes. However, they are likely to have rules about how smart or casual we can be. Dress Codes may also extend to jewellery, how we wear our hair and facial hair. Depending on situation, there may also be regulations about make up or perfume. A few years ago there was a lot of attention given to the requirement for female staff in some industries and roles to wear high heels. This caused a backlash because of the health and safety risks to the employees, not to mention the sexism attached to being forced to wear heels. Read more here.
Health & Safety
As well as dress codes being implemented for corporate image and reputation, sometimes a dress code may be required for health and safety reasons. For example, having long hair tied up and hair covered by a hair net or hat in a food processing factory.
I’m not sure what the position is in other countries, but in the UK where there is a risk to the health and safety of an employee or others, then it may be possible in certain circumstances to discriminate. An example could be in a factory with machinery there is likely to be a requirement not to wear jewellery. Someone who insists that they must require jewellery as a statement of their faith and refuses to take off the jewellery where it would be a health risk if it were to be caught in machinery, could be dismissed, or refused employment on health and safety grounds. This is part of the issue in the case I explore today in my personal blog.
Would you always accept dress code restrictions?
How readily do we accept dress codes? Would you decline a job if it required a dress code? I suspect that answer may vary from person to person but probably also depending on the nature of the job and the restrictions. If the requirements are in line with what you do or believe anyway, I would imagine it wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. However, if you were suddenly told you had to wear your hair in a particular way or a particular type of shoe, you may feel that this was arbitrary and unnecessary and be more likely to fight it.
I also wonder how much society is changing; there are lots of areas where the status quo is being challenged, and are our uniforms and dress codes something that should be challenged too?
Mask-wearing as an example
During the Covid-19 Pandemic habits changed in many parts of the world as mask-wearing became compulsory and its much more normal to see people still wearing masks on public transport today. The last time I was at my doctor’s surgery, 2-3 weeks ago, mask wearing was still compulsory.
Some people opposed mask-wearing, but in the UK most adapted and complied, so we do tend to comply with rules and regulations. If your employer was to announce tomorrow that they were to reintroduce a mask-wearing policy for health & safety reasons, would that be a reasonable measure – or would they be over-reacting? How would you respond?
Since Covid-19 and the changes that have come about in our societies, is it possible that companies are hyper-sensitive and being over-cautious with some of their dress-code requirements? Is it time to drop/relax dress codes in the workplace?
Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.