Summer is upon us (allegedly) which means the annual debate about what’s OK to wear in hot weather and what’s not will soon be starting.
You might think that workplace dress codes should be a fairly simple HR matter to sort out, but they are surprisingly emotive and can lead to heated discussions in which the phrase “my human rights!” is frequently heard (human rights doesn’t apply here, by the way). The west has become increasingly informal over the last 100 years. In some ways, it seems a pity – who can regret the passing of shell suits and grunge? Now even Japan – a bastion of formality - seems to be moving away from the traditional suit and tie for its workplace dress codes and encouraging employees to wear what it calls ‘Super Cool Biz’!
If you work in a fairly formal environment where there is a need to demonstrate an appearance of authority the idea of sending an employee to visit a client wearing white shorts, a jacket and a flowery shirt would probably make me cringe (and knowing our clients they would be unimpressed by the laid-back appearance). The chap on the right wouldn’t look out of place in the Café de Paris, Monaco, but it would be hard to take him seriously if he were issuing a formal warning!
Super Cool Biz was launched in 2011 for a very good commercial reason. The Japanese environment ministry wanted to reduce the energy used by air conditioning systems and it would not have been able to do so if business people had continued to wear heavier suiting.
If you want to restrict what people wear, you need to be able to justify it. Building a professional environment is a means of justifying a smart dress code, and wearing what clients expect you to wear is particularly important.
Dress code and religious beliefs can be a delicate issue. In a hospital a nurse lost her discrimination claim for being denied the right to wear a crucifix around her neck, as the hospital successfully argued it was a health and safety matter. On the other hand, a British Airways customer services advisor won her claim of the same type as there was no good reason for the airline not to adapt its dress code to allow small items of religious display like a crucifix. This week an employment tribunal decided that it was not discriminatory for an employer to have a requirement that employees did not wear clothing that could obstruct or be a trip hazard to themselves or the children in their care and this meant that an apprentice nursery worker could not wear a floor length jilbab.
Unless there is a specific reason most employers would accommodate a turban or a head scarf that doesn’t cover the face so long as it fits in with the prevailing dress code. The covering of the face with a veil may be more difficult to accommodate in some circumstances. Headfield School near Leeds successfully rebutted a claim of direct discrimination when it told a teaching assistant not to wear a full face veil in the classroom. It did so by showing that the children would respond better when they could see all her facial features. The school allowed the veil to be worn outside the classroom as there was no practical reason to prevent it. Although there was evidence that the requirement to unveil when working directly with the children was indirect discrimination, the fact that the school’s response was proportionate and no more than was strictly required enabled it to successfully defend its position. Each case turns on its own facts and this case should not be taken as authority for the view that devout Muslim woman have to remove facial veils at all times in the workplace.
A Super Cool Biz approach will not be for everyone. But if you implement a dress code make sure you can justify it. Men and women, although not identical (i.e. an item-by-item comparison) should be treated equally in how the dress code is enforced. Religious and cultural dress shouldn’t be unnecessarily restricted, but a compromise is often the best way to go if there is conflict.
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