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Kate Palmer

Peninsula

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

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Employee pushes back on natural hair colour policy with “terrible wigs”

Delving into the dos and don’ts of employer dress codes.
employee_pushes_back_on_natural_hair_colour_policy_with_terrible_wigs

When considering a dress code, most employers look to set one that is relative to the degree of professionalism required for their workplace.

This obviously will vary from industry to industry. Some employees, however, argue that dress codes go too far and stifle their individuality.

We saw this recently when receptionist Emily Benschter was asked to wear a wig to conceal her pink hair, in line with her employer’s natural hair rule.

Emily saw this as an opportunity to hit back; she turned up to work each day wearing a new ‘terrible wig’, each more noticeably bad than the one before.

This proved a talking point from customers who would mockingly compliment her ‘new do’.

Acting unreasonable?

It’s reasonable for employers to have a dress code, setting out the standards that they expect in their business. It’s important that the dress code is non-discriminatory and considers the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

So it should cover basic rules around standard of dress, such as no jeans allowed, or smart footwear must be worn, rather than discriminatory language ie. ‘women must wear high heels’.

The dress code should be clearly outlined in a policy, so all employees are aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in their workplace.

It’s reasonable for employers to have a dress code, setting out the standards that they expect in their business. It’s important that the dress code is non-discriminatory and considers the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010

Proceed with caution

If an employee presents themselves to work in a way that is against the company dress code policy, whether this be outfit choice, nail polish or hair colour, then employers need to be careful when addressing it, being aware not to discriminate or cause offence whilst finding out the reason why they have not followed the policy.

All staff should be held to the same standard where dress and appearance are concerned. However, employers should deal with any concerns on a case-to-case basis, as different employees’ circumstances can differ.

Firstly, check whether there is any reason relating to the employee’s ‘unnatural’ hair colour that would be protected under the Discrimination Act 2010 such as a religious requirement or medical condition that affects their natural colour.

A case-by-case basis

Looking at each case individually is key as an employee’s protected characteristics or circumstances may not be immediately obvious.

In Emily’s case, although it’s unlikely that there is a medical condition that would have turned her hair pink, her employer should still check.

However, hypothetically, if Emily did dye her hair due to her religious or philosophical beliefs, which the employer was aware she held, and the dress code policy was still enforced, then this could be seen as discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

It’s important to note that there is no evidence in this case to suggest any discriminatory behaviour on behalf of the employer.

All staff should be held to the same standard where dress and appearance are concerned. However, employers should deal with any concerns on a case-to-case basis, as different employees’ circumstances can differ

Setting reasonable standards

It’s important when putting together a dress code to consider whether the standards of dress you are looking to enforce are reasonable in relation to both your business and the role that each employee carries out.

For example, a construction company owner will have both construction workers and office staff, so there are likely to be different standards set across different sites.

The dress code may therefore specify that office-based workers are required to dress in business professional clothing whereas on construction sites, people must wear specific safety gear, steel toed shoes and more suitable clothing for the work they are doing, as well as standards for anyone visiting the site.

In other professions, customer-facing and non-customer facing employees may have different standards of dress code set out within the policy. The key part here is that the requirements are reasonable and set out to achieve a justifiable aim.

Key considerations

How these rules are enforced is also important. It could be considered unreasonable to dismiss someone for coming to work with pink hair if there have been no other disciplinary concerns.

However, it would be reasonable to have a discussion with the employee and remind them of the dress code policy, letting them know what action could be taken if they fail to adhere to the policy moving forward.

Some employers will use a strike system here, however others will go straight to disciplinary procedures. A key consideration is if the dress code violation is detrimental to their performance.

In Emily’s example, the employer is not likely to look kindly on the fact that customers are mocking their employee’s appearance so could consider it to be detrimental.

In a warehouse, factory or construction site, failure to adhere to a dress code could cause injury or even, worst case, a workplace fatality, so it’s likely that employees in those industries will be held to stricter standards.

Outlining the reasons why the dress code is enforced can be useful, to ensure that employers and employees are on the same page

Maintaining consistency

The policy must be kept consistent with everyone held to the same standard, excluding employees with extenuating circumstances. Outlining the reasons why the dress code is enforced can be useful, to ensure that employers and employees are on the same page.

Many employers offer incentives such as ‘dress down Fridays’, giving employees the chance to relax heading into the weekend.

Incentives such as these have been found to be successful within businesses with many employees finding it easier to maintain a standard of professionalism within their attire when it is only required for four days out of five.

When the dress code is not at the forefront of employees’ minds, standards can begin to slide. So having regular reminders of the dress code policies can be helpful.

All new employees should be issued with a copy of the dress code policy, and any changes should be clearly communicated to all employees either via email or notice boards.

If you enjoyed this, read: Is current employment law fit for purpose in the new working world?

 

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Kate Palmer

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

Read more from Kate Palmer
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