Handbags and gladrags – setting an appropriate dress code

1 January, 2018

Dress code policies within the catering industry must be carefully thought-through, Erica Dennett, head of employment at law firm Cripps explains.

Considerations regarding dress code need to be made to ensure the safety of staff and customers, to communicate a company image, and to mitigate risk of a claim from an employee. Balancing these factors is necessary because the legal consequences of a claim can be damaging from both a financial and a reputational point of view.

A dress code or uniform also plays a significant role in a business’s success. “Aesthetic labour” – where an employee provides value simply by their appearance – is prevalent in the food and drink sector. For example, a chef’s uniform consisting of a ‘toque blanche’, a white double-breasted jacket and black and white trousers, is synonymous with a customer’s perception of cleanliness and quality. Dressing serving staff in a harmonious uniform not only maintains consistency and brand standards, it helps customers identify staff.

However, an organisation must consider how a particular dress code or uniform can affect staff. Cases involving dress codes are rarely taken to a tribunal, but when they are, they typically attract significant attention. Claims include direct or indirect discrimination (both brought under the Equality Act 2010), and a breach of an individual’s right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Under the Equality Act, a dress code must not be discriminatory in respect of any of the ‘protected characteristics’ of age, disability, marital status, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. Direct discrimination occurs when the reason for a person being treated less favourably than another is due to one of the protected characteristics. For example, a requirement for women to wear high heels could lead to a successful sex discrimination claim, due to the physical damage high heels can cause, resulting in women being treated less favourably than men.

Indirect discrimination (typically the most common dress code claim) arises when a policy, applied to everyone in the same way, has a worse effect on a group of people that share a protected characteristic, unless the requirement can be justified. For example, stipulating kitchen staff must not have beards could be indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of religion or belief against an employee who may be required to grow one as part of his faith. On the other hand, if an employer required chefs to cover their beards for food hygiene reasons, this would be a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of the policy.

Practical suggestions

Look at your policy holistically and think about the reasoning behind it. What are the business reasons and aims for having a policy? Are they achieved? If the policy potentially disadvantages a particular group, can it be justified? It should relate to the job and be reasonable in nature. If you have a different dress code for men and women, such as “men to wear ties, women to dress professionally”, ensure the dress code isn’t more stringent for one sex than the other.

A word of warning: compensation for both sex and race discrimination, including compensation for loss of earnings and injury to feelings, is unlimited. If you would like advice about your dress code, contact Erica Dennett by emailing Erica.Dennett@cripps.co.uk or call 01732 224 026.

This article first appeared in B&I Catering in December 2017.