A leading law firm recently directed 105 female trainee solicitors to "dress far more appropriately" and "brush their hair". It seems this was justified, but exactly how far can you go when telling your employees how they should look?

Dress code in the news

Bosses at the law firm Allen & Overy were recently horrified by the workplace attire of dozens of new female trainee solicitors; according to reports they "had far too much flesh on show". So an email was quickly drafted and circulated to the 105 would-be solicitors. It said: "We’ve been asked to draw your attention to the fact that HR has received numerous complaints about the way female trainees have been dressing around the office. The main problem seems to be very short skirts and high heels and generally looking like we’re going clubbing instead of to the office."

It went on to describe how some of them also turned up to work "without brushing their hair" and ended by stating that those "dressed inappropriately won’t be allowed to take part in client meetings" and "could be called in for uncomfortable discussions with HR about their appearance". While this report makes for humorous reading, it also highlights the problem of unprofessional workplace attire.

The legal position

Legally speaking, you can have a dress and appearance policy in order to maintain a professional business image. However, tribunals also recognise that employees have the right to individual expression. Finding a balance between the two can be hard; get it wrong for example, prohibit certain items of clothing or adornment and you may be landed with a discrimination claim.

The key to enforceability lies in being able to justify your policy on business grounds. When considering what is reasonable, look at:

1. the business sector you operate in and if there are any current industry standards for business dress;

2. the type of work employees carry out; and

3. whether or not they are in customer-facing roles.

Problems generally only arise where a policy conflicts with discrimination laws. At present, you can ban clothing or jewellery even if it will be indirectly discriminatory to a particular religion if you can justify it. This is most usually done on health (hygiene) or safety grounds.

If an item of jewellery isn’t required by a particular faith for example, a Christian employee wearing a cross a ban on it isn’t discriminatory.

If you require smart dress, give examples of what is appropriate for example, knee length skirts, business-like shoes. Also outline what is unacceptable items such as leggings, flip-flops and shorts.

Make all staff aware of your policy and any possible penalties. And don’t forget to apply the policy equally to all staff.