Too hot to handle?

I think I am a grown up, and able to decide for myself what to wear to work (and what not to wear).   I don’t really like to be told.  Recent walks by women all over the world under the banner of Slut Walks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SlutWalk) got me thinking about how we seek to control what women (and men) wear.

A  burka ban (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8442622/French-burka-ban-police-arrest-two-veiled-women.html) can seem ‘Unbritish , unless there is a real need to see a woman’s face (teaching or giving evidence in court for example).

But a crucifix ban (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article7089691.ece) can be lawful if  necessary for Health and Safety.  But British Airways famously ran into trouble when allowing the headscarf and prohibiting the wearing of a visible crucifix.

German bosses have persuaded the EU that they have the right to require women to wear bras to work (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1346520/Court-rules-German-bosses-order-women-wear-bras-work.html). Perhaps that was another ‘safety’ issue!.   We have yet to see men demanding equal treatment in that regard.  A ‘bring your under wiring to work’ day is not the most likely equal opportunity event in a workplace near you.

To what extent is it an employer’s business what employees wear to work? 

Are dress codes a legitimate imposition of image and standards, or is this a load of white middle-aged people trying to impose their standards of dress on everyone else?   Do your customers really mind what your staff wear?  If they do, do customers’ ideas of proper clothing match yours?

Our professional practice had a credit controller decades ago who looked like a zombie/goth:  black hair, black nails, black lips, she certainly didn’t match the corporate image.    She had a mostly desk-based job, and we decided to put our conservative instincts aside and give her the job, as she plainly was the best candidate for the role.

From time to time she went to clients’ offices to sit in reception and wait for a cheque.  She always got one quickly – people couldn’t get her out of their plush front office fast enough.

She looked different.  She was different.  But she was completely effective in her role.

The customer is not always right

Years ago, managers told me “customers don’t like black people” or “customers don’t like obviously gay people”.  The law steamed right past that, and no-one would seriously rely on such reasoning today.

Some Muslim women get stick from stricter Muslim customers if they don’t cover up enough.     Should we be requiring them to wear the niqab because that is what some customers want (if they do), or should we be supporting their right to wear what they want?

Is it right to assume that customers are automatically put off by people who look different to them?    When I started work it was ‘business suits’ only, and women were not allowed to wear trousers to work.    When I was at school, the uniform rules extended to underwear, and we had inspections!  We have come a long way.

Does it offend me if the coffee shop person has dreadlocks and piercings?  Not nearly as much as surly service.

I don’t care what they wear, but I do care how I am treated.

There is a segment of the population that finds it hard to deal with people who are not in business suits,but often it is the senior directors who object to how someone dresses, not the customers, and there is no customer profiling or research to support their point of view.

The real issue for many customers is not what people wear, but whether they can understand what your staff are saying!

It is often far more important to have a conversation with your staff than admire their outfit.

I once had a client who took great pride in how informal people were in their organisation and how everybody could wear what they wanted.   Even torn jeans were acceptable.   Every time I turned up at their offices (about once a month) I was told, “no need to wear suits for us”.  Eventually I got the hint, and went out and bought a pair of torn jeans – just for them.  Next time I visited they said “It is wonderful you feel relaxed enough with us to wear what you want”!

Who’s in charge here?

“But it’s my company, what do you mean I can’t control who wears what?”    The boss’s right to lay down standards of dress is constrained by equality law, and s/he who pays the piper cannot call any tune they feel like.

If an outfit (or accessory) is genuinely dangerous (or a hygiene problem in the food or medical sector), it may be legitimate to ask staff not to wear it.  There might be other ways around the difficulty – wearing medical tape over a stud, for example.   Surely banning should be the last option once alternatives have been explored, not the first?

Providing a staff uniform can be useful.  I have worked with IT companies who give their technicians sweat shirts so they can easily be identified on clients’ sites (and asked for help).  They often specify that everyone wear trousers since women crawling around under desks in micro minis tend to attract the wrong kind of attention.    So far I have not heard of a woman IT worker (or man) objecting to that rule.

Security workers, medical workers, police and the armed forces all wear uniforms in environments where it is really important to be able quickly and easily to identify who is who and what their  job function is.  In a world of email and telephone call centres, these physical signals are invisible and arguably irrelevant.

But although you may well have a ‘legitimate aim’ in setting standards, you may  also have to justify how you apply it.  The Catholic school that banned boys from wearing their hair in ‘cornrows’ persuaded the High Court that their policy of requiring conventional standards of appearance was legitimate, but their inflexible application of their policy produced a detriment for particular racial groups and could not be justified. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-13803106)

Sexual harassment/religious issues

What about a workplace without rules?  If everyone wears what they want, then other problems can arise.  I was talking to a University Lecturer recently who remarked that his female students were attending his workshops during hot weather in micro shorts and a top smaller than a bra.   “I often work closely with my students at the computer desk, moving the mouse to show them where to click.  When they come to class half naked, I worry that I will be accused of sexual harassment if I get too close to them, or look down at the wrong moment.  I feel sexually harassed by what these young women wear”.

Should we have a rule “If you don’t want it looked at or talked about, put it away”?  The Slut Walkers are right to the extent that women should be free to wear what they want without fear of assault, but is it reasonable to go to work half clothed and expect no-one to notice or say anything?  Would it be OK for a man to go to the office in shorts and sandals and nothing else?

The modern workplace includes everything from Sikhs who need turbans and bangles and knives, to women who wear hardly anything, or women in the niqab or burka.   We have teenage Goths, eco warriors and men and women in suits.

Are we going to try to stem the tide of diversity and require everyone to look the same?

Is what I wear to go to work going to be driven by religious sensibilities of religions I am not a member of?  Are we going to go for a common look but allow wide variation?   Or are we going to let everyone do their thing?

Meanwhile, have a look at your own dress code/policy at work.  Is all that stuff really necessary?  If I put you on the witness stand today, could you make a real case for how your business really needs all this? 

If I did put you on the witness stand with my hair dyed pink, would it make me more or less of a dangerous adversary or effective friend?

I have always wanted to dye my hair pink.   Given my line of work, and the fact I do spend a lot of time with clients (and in tribunal), I felt it was not appropriate and I have not yet done it.   Nobody told me not to, nobody required me not to.  It was my decision.  When I get to the age of 70 (which by my calculation is my most likely retirement age given how things are going) I will celebrate by dyeing my hair pink … or do you think I should do it now?

Talk to us about your dress and uniform policy.

Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.

Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060 Website :  www.irenicon.co.uk
You can follow Annabel on Twitter

1 Comment

Filed under discrimination, employment law, uniform and dress codes

One response to “Too hot to handle?

  1. David A

    Thank you for those thoughts. As you illustrate, respect for clients’ expectations is important in delivering an effective and successful service.
    As a public servant I would always were a tie and probably a suit for important meetings. As I now approach retirement I never wear jeans for “important” meetings, seldom wear a tie, though it sometimes sees the start of a day! If I wear a suit I am always asked: “Interview?” or “Where are you going?”
    As a customer I like to be able to identify staff but know that not everyone can successfully wear the same colour!
    Communication is fundamental and I don’t like being addressed by someone in dark, or reflective glasses. I do like to see you I am talking to! It’s always a joy to see, or share, a smile.
    Have a nice day.

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