Admit it - you are reading this in your jeans and a hoody. You haven't worn a tie or high heels in months and wearing a cardigan would be smart by current standards. If you are getting used to loungewear and comfy slippers, then don’t apply for a job with legal firm Vardags. According to an internal email leaked last year, its staff should be “discreetly sexy” but never “tacky or tarty." "Cardigans are almost never OK.”

Vardags has now issued High Court proceedings against the former employee they believe leaked the email, and the employee herself is claiming discrimination in the employment tribunal. So how far can an employer go when in imposing a dress code on its staff?  

Appearance contributes to a business’s reputation and it is fair enough to encourage staff to maintain an appropriate standard of dress and personal appearance at work. Flip-flops and crop tops are unlikely to give a great impression, unless you are selling surf boards.  But employers also need to avoid discriminating against certain groups. For instance, banning nose studs could offend employees who have a religious reason for a particular piercing.  And while it is permissible to have different rules for men and women, the rules should not be more stringent for one group than another.

The best way to get through the minefield is to have a clear policy so that everyone knows where they stand (whether in stilettos or trainers) and ensure you can justify any particularly onerous or sensitive requirements.

 The amount of detail in the policy will depend on the nature of an employer's business, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Health and safety may be a justification for banning certain clothes or accessories, long earrings for instance, or turbans;
  • You may want to ban tops that carry wording or pictures that could be offensive or damage a business’s reputation;
  •  If safety clothing and equipment is provided, make it clear that it should be worn or used as appropriate and directed;
  • Consider whether reasonable adjustments need to be made to your dress code for staff members with a disability;
  • If an employee has pursued a course of action leading to gender reassignment surgery, it’s unlawful for an employer to prevent them from dressing according to their new gender;
  • Explain what will happen if staff fail to adhere to the standards of dress and appearance;
  • Consult your staff when drafting the policy.  If they are involved, they are more likely to buy into it;

And of course, in an age of Covid, don’t forget face coverings!