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Can I force a dress code?

26 May 2017

Hi Harry, Every time I come into work, I look at my staff and feel like they have just walked in from a nightclub! I want to force a dress code, can I?

Hello Jessica,

I fully emphasise with your dilemma, its not a good look having all your staff dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Under Australian law, enforcing a dress code that mandates specific articles of clothing for employees based on gender opens the door for discrimination claims. So the Travolta look could be here to stay. In saying that and here is where it can get confusing, Employers have the right to give direction about dress and appearance in general terms, but it must be reasonable.

Reasonable is a sometimes confusing legal concept because basically it depends on the individual circumstances, your businesses might want to project a certain image, and dress code can certainly a part of that. You might also have an office dress code policy in place to meet other needs, like safety requirements (high vis vest) or hygiene standards (hair nets).

Where it can get messy is if you ask all you female staff in a food manufacturing plant to where stilettos and fishnet stocking to work and that would rightly be perceived as not being reasonable and discriminatory based on gender/sex. It would not be discrimination only if you could request that you male staff wear equivalent male clothing to stilettos and stockings, and that would prove difficult indeed although possibly amusing!

While a difference in clothing is one murky area that businesses have to navigate, businesses are more likely to see issues arise around piercings, tattoos, and haircuts or colour. As an example in a recent case where a man sued his employer for discrimination on the grounds of sex because females were allowed to wear ear studs while he was not. The employee won in this instance.

A case like this serves to illustrate the reason why more issues about office dress codes seem to be popping up lately: changing thoughts about what is and isn’t acceptable attire.

In the case of the bloke with the earring, the tribunal ruled in his favour because they thought that societal norms have moved to the point where that wasn’t unusual.

Just to wrap this up I want to finish by saying that whatever level of office dress code policy you impose, there are a few important things that workplaces should consider. There should be a statement of expectation in regards to the style and look – whether that’s business attire or smart casual – but it needs to be as equal as possible. This should include guidelines about types of attire that aren’t acceptable at work, such as ripped clothing, open-toed shoes or sheer fabrics.

It is recommended that any grooming requirements be included in the dress code, such as employees needing to come to work showered and tidy.

Jessica, I hope this helps.

Until next time.

Harry.

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