No longer a case of ‘suits you sir’ – is the corporate dress code disappearing?

Attitudes towards corporate dress and business attire are changing. First impressions count; business attire can promote perceptions of leadership, trust and professionalism. But in the wrong environment it can also be perceived as old fashioned and out of touch. For some employers, striking the right balance between having a corporate identity and allowing someone to have their own personal identity and be comfortable in the workplace can be tricky.

As a trainee solicitor, I once heard a partner tell a friend that she should dress for the job she wants, not the job she has. At the time, my friend said she had always wanted to work in fashion, but she was happy with her chosen legal career and why did that mean she had to wear a suit every day when she didn’t feel it suited her, or represented her personality.

The increase in flexible working and efforts employers are taking to promote and encourage diversity in the workplace means that the idea of requiring all employees to dress and look the same is out of touch (and potentially discriminatory).

Some employers are already taking steps to change their dress codes and have a less prescriptive policy. Other employers are going further and promoting their lack of dress code as a staff perk or benefit.  But how do other employers approach this if there is still a desire for wanting their employees to dress in a certain way, without being discriminatory or discouraging talent?

Gender specific dress codes should be avoided at all costs. A few years ago, a well-known accountancy house in London was heavily criticised for sending home a worker from her receptionist job because she refused to wear heels at work. The worker subsequently launched a petition calling for the law to be changed so that companies could no longer force women to wear heels at work. This caught the attention of government, which led to a report being published by the Petitions Committee and Women Equalities Committee, finding that discriminatory dress codes remain commonplace in certain sectors and called for reform of the current legislation.

Recently, the Fawcett Society (the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights)  published a ‘Sex Discrimination Law Review’, which suggests proposals to improve sex discrimination protection and gender equality. This suggests, amongst other things, that the government should produce clear guidance on dress codes at work about the types of requirement placed on women which are unlikely to have an equivalent for men and must make clear that both policy and practice by employers in terms of dress codes must be non-discriminatory.

Being too prescriptive about what employees should wear can be discriminatory on a range of characteristics, not just gender. Employers should ensure that their policies do not prevent or restrict employees from feeling comfortable in the workplace, or from wearing clothing that is consistent with their religion, culture, ethnic group or other traditions. Whatever the desired dress code, employers should avoid gender specific policies and be cautious of being too vague or too prescriptive with what employees should wear. It is often easier for employers to say what employees should not wear, rather than what they are expected to wear.

Employers should also consider how dress can be interpreted differently. ‘Business attire’ for men connotes a suit and tie, whereas for women, this is open to interpretation and allows women much more flexibility than men to choose what to wear. Words such as ‘professional, ‘appropriate’ or ‘suitable’ are also subjective, incapable of a universal definition and are open to interpretation.

Linklaters have recently introduced a revised dress code to enable employees to work more comfortably in the workplace. It operates a ‘flexible and non-gender specific dress code’, where employees are free to wear what they wish (within the parameters of the policy, of course) and providing employees exercise good sense to maintain high professional standards at all times and be prepared to dress accordingly for meetings or other work events.

Personally, I’m pleased with this and believe it is a modern step for a corporate environment. However, employees may prefer to be told what to wear and do not want the burden of having to consider what to wear each morning. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has said he wears a grey t-shirt every day so that he can focus his energy on other decisions.

What is clear, is that attitudes towards dress codes are changing and employers should consider reviewing their existing policies and practices.