No shoes, no shirt and I still get service – the changing nature of appearance and dress code policies

Most workplaces have an appearance and dress code policy which commonly requires employees to wear a particular uniform or have a certain standard of appearance.

Increasingly, workplaces have dropped or relaxed dress code policies which previously required that professional business attire would be worn at all times in the office.  

Many corporate workplaces that previously adhered to formal dress codes – think for example, banks, accounting firms and law firms – have now taken a flexible approach and have encouraged "neat business attire" (no tie or suit required).

Employers may be under pressure to break away from the requirement for formal business attire or uniform standards in an effort to become more relatable to clients or customers and in pursuit of a more relaxed work culture. However, changing the standards of an appearance and dress code policy will depend on many factors and a less formal dress code  may not always be appropriate for all workplaces.

Below are some factors that employers may consider before changing a dress code policy:

  • One in all in?

For some businesses, it may be still appropriate to require client-facing employees to have a formal uniform or wear business attire. For employees who do not have contact with the public or clients and work largely in the back office, a formal uniform or business attire may not be necessary. In such circumstances, employers may wish to allow employees to ditch the suit and tie and simply wear what is commonly known as 'neat business attire'.

Recently, Goldman Sachs Bank in the United States advised employees in its technology division to use their discretion on whether to dress in business attire. The change in attitude from the bank is also seen as a measure to improve recruitment and retention of computer engineers and software designers who may otherwise enjoy better perks at pure technology firms.

Another option for employers who are considering taking a more flexible approach is to only require employees to wear formal business attire on days where there are meetings with external third parties.

  • Too casual?

There is always the risk when relaxing an appearance or dress code policy that the standard of attire becomes too low. Whilst most employees will know what is and is not appropriate workplace attire, unfortunately there are some who may push the envelope and take “dress down” days a little bit too far. 

For example, in 2015 the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration told a Senate Committee that a new dress code had been introduced which declared that onesies, ugg boots and thongs were not appropriate attire for the workplace.

Similarly, with activewear becoming a more common fashion choice, employers should set out some clear expectations about what is acceptable and not acceptable business attire, even for casual or “dress-down” days.

  • Safety and personal protective equipment

For some workplaces, safety may dictate that a uniform or other personal protective equipment (PPE) is required.

This month, the Sydney Local Health District faced opposition from security guards at Royal Prince Alfred and Concord Hospitals over its plans to change the existing security uniform to a wool-blend suit. The security guards have argued that the physical nature of their work requires a more robust uniform and the suits are not practical for restraining patients or carrying other items of PPE.

Lessons for employers

For employers, it is important to note that there is no “one size fits all” approach with appearance and dress code policies. Employers should carefully think about and then adopt a policy which suits the needs of their business and, if desired, provides flexibility to employees.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

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