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Ask the expert: Can a manager send staff home?


Ask the expert

This week, Esther Smith, partner at Thomas Eggar, and Martin Brewer, partner and employment law specialist at Mills & Reeve, advise on whether an employer can force an employee to come to work wearing a uniform when full uniform has not yet been provided, and subsequently send staff home if they do not comply.

The question:

I have worked for a company for over three years without wearing a uniform, but recently the company decided to be strict with uniform. I have been provided with part of the uniform but they expect me to report to work with full uniform at my own expense. They also want me to wear a particular shoe colour, which I refuse to agree to.

I turned up to work wearing a dark smart suit and brown boots and my manager turned round and asked me to go home until I was able to return to work with full uniform.

Can she do this, considering full uniform has not yet been provided and can a company force me to wear a particular shoe colour without full consultation? Moreover, I sit behind a desk all day, hence my shoe colour does not affect my work performance in any way. Uniform/shoe policy is not expressed in my contract neither has it ever been a problem in the last three years.

Hope Oguamanam

Legal advice:

Esther Smith, partner, Thomas Eggar

A company is generally at liberty to impose a dress code on its employees so long as that requirement does not give rise to some form of discrimination. If the policy is new, one would expect consultation to take place with staff about the implementation of the policy and the reasons for it.

If employees fail to comply with the dress policy, an employer can impose disciplinary sanctions on the basis that the employee has failed to comply with a reasonable instruction. However, if you were disciplined for your breach of dress code, on the information provided in your question, your employer should take account of the fact that the uniform has not yet been provided in full, and that your shoe colour should not be apparent.

It is possible for a manager to send an employee home if they do not comply with uniform requirements, and this is often the approach taken initially rather than progressing to disciplinary action.

At the end of the day the employer is able to take a strict line, so long as they treat all employees equally, and can impose the dress code. My advice would be to try to comply with the policy and press your employer to provide the additional uniform that you are waiting for. However, it is not common for the employer to provide footwear as part of the uniform, on the basis that employees would have to provide their own footwear whether they were coming to work in a uniform or their own clothes.

Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar’s Employment Law Unit. For further information please visit Thomas Eggar

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Martin Brewer, partner and employment law specialist, Mills and Reeve

There’s quite a bit going on here so let’s see if we can sort it out.

First it seems to me that it is up to the employer if it wants to require you to wear a particular ‘uniform’ although reading your question I wonder whether it’s as simple as that.

If the clothing is in fact a uniform (in the sense that a nurse or police officer, for example, would have a uniform) then it would be wholly unreasonable for the employer to ask you to provide it. But if what you mean is that they have imposed a dress code, part of which is ‘uniform’ which they have provided, then they seem to me to be acting reasonably.

For example, let’s suppose the employer wanted you to wear a jacket with their logo on it but otherwise wear black trousers and shoes which you have to provide. They are essentially imposing a dress code and part of that dress is the requirement to wear part of a uniform (the jacket and logo) and you are required to comply with the ‘dress code’ part. I see nothing wrong in this.

Second, can the employer send you home if you turn up wearing clothes in breach of the dress code? On balance they ought to give you time to adapt your wardrobe and possibly, particularly if the change causes hardship, offer to meet some or all of the initial cost of the change.

Whilst an employer has no implied obligation to operate contractual requirements reasonably, they cannot do so in breach of mutual trust and confidence. This means that they can’t ask you to do something you can’t reasonably achieve. They need to give you time (and possibly assistance) to adapt. Sending you home seems somewhat extreme if this is a first ‘offence’ but they may argue that you are in breach of the dress code (possibly even in breach of contract) so you can see the employer’s point of view. Don’t let this escalate unnecessarily.

Do speak to your employer, explain your difficulties and seek help and support.

Martin can be contacted at: [email protected]

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