Is your dress code fit for 2017?

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Gary Cattermole
Director
The Survey Initiative
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Recently the media has been full of reports about MPs calling for tougher laws on dress code discrimination. Gary Cattermole, Director of award-winning employee engagement and employee research provider, The Survey Initiative, discusses why the issue is so vital and provides advice on how to create an inclusive dress code in your organisation.

I think we have a lot to thank Nicola Thorp for. Thorp was a receptionist at accounting giant, PwC, and one day she turned up to work in flat shoes.

Her bosses pointed out that they expected her to wear shoes with at least a two-inch heel, and after she had refused to go and buy herself a pair, and pointed out that her male counterparts were not expected to wear similar attire, she was sent home without pay.

Aggrieved, Thorp set-up a petition calling for a law to stop firms from requiring women to wear high heels at work which attracted a whopping 152,420 signatures.

Thorp had definitely started something that many had naturally felt was unjust for a long time. Parliament decided to look into the matter and the Women and Equalities Committee and the Petitions Committee invited the public to send in other examples of discriminatory dress codes.

They were inundated with accounts of sexism in the workplace from women having to dye their hair blonde to wearing revealing outfits. The committee’s report stated – “The existing law is clear, the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. The existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work. We call on the government to review this area of the law.”

To many of us it almost seems ridiculous that this is even being discussed in 2017, let alone women being subjected to so many out-of-date workplace expectations. In the news, we may hear that Trump has issued a memo to say that his staffers should ‘dress like women’ and we may pass it off as yet another inappropriate comment, but it would appear that dress code discrimination is endemic in many organisations.

I often direct staff and employee engagement surveys for a wide range of organisations from SMEs to multinationals and inequality with workplace gear is quite often top of the agenda.

So, the question I’m often asked – “how do you create a non-discriminative dress code?”

First up you have to consider your organisation’s own brand. Are you a Facebook-media savvy type organisation where it’s OK to rock up in your jeans, smart T shirt and trainers? Or are you a city outfit when only the smartest of tailored suits will do? Whilst you’re deciding how your company’s ethos should be portrayed, it’s ideal to consult with your staff to see what they think should be written into your workplace dress code.

It’s also vital to debate standards of dress – for example the CEO may feel suit and ties are the norm, but other team members may prefer a more casual approach. Also, one person’s view of what constitutes ‘smart casual’ is very different to someone else’s, you may often find that there will be vast differences of opinion by people of different generations and faith, so make sure everyone has a voice and that their views are heard.

Once the dress code has been agreed it’s also imperative that the code is shared to everyone throughout the organisation so that everyone knows what is expected of them. 

Sometimes it is important for an organisation to offer their staff a uniform; for many, such as the emergency services, it is essential for the public to instantly recognise them, for other companies it may be more to do with conveying a corporate image. Here all employees should be offered non-gender specific garments, such as health professionals and security personnel offered trousers etc.

Many organisations need to offer a uniform due to health and safety too, for many different roles there are various different options a staff member could wear.

Why not give employees choice within your corporate guidelines on what they would want to wear?

Food service operators for example could be offered a choice of three different options that they would feel most comfortable and productive in.

I still feel it astonishing that any company would put, or ever did, put in their dress code that women should wear high heels or apply several layers of make up! My female colleagues may tell me that stilettos are great for a glam night out, but not many opt for them on a daily basis for office workwear.

There’s also been much medical evidence to claim that wearing high heels can cause physical pain and lead to malformed feet, such as bunions etc. Many women naturally protest being told to apply make-up and don a pair of heals as they feel it sexualises their role in the workplace, and their efforts are not judged on their talents, but more on their looks, which is not OK in 2017.

Creating a dress code also goes beyond just a clothes issue, when developing your policy, also consider your company’s view on tattoos and body piercings – some bars and clubs actively encourage people with tattoos and body piercings to give the outlet a more edgy vibe, whereas other organisations may request employees to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work. 

Make sure your dress code policy is inclusive to everyone of any religion to ensure they are free to express their own cultural and religious beliefs. Also, consider employees within the LGBT community – could your uniform put LGBT off working for you, are you losing out on top talent because of your existing dress code? What policies do you have in place for someone who’s transgender or on their transformation journey?

If you’re ever uncertain of your legal requirements discuss the issue with your company lawyer or refer to Acas’ website, which offers lots of helpful tips and latest legal advice on dress code.

But the key to getting the dress code right, is the same for all things employee engagement, make sure you listen to everyone and treat everyone with mutual respect.

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