A Dressing Down – Dress Codes in the Modern Workplace?

According to research cited by the British Association of Dermatologists, one in five Britons now has a tattoo.  Amongst US 30 somethings, the estimate rises to about two in five, with facial piercings being almost as common in both countries.  As a result, this is becoming an issue that more and more employers have to grapple with.

Employers may wish to promote a certain image through their employees which they believe reflects the ethos of their organization and tattoos and piercings may well not fit with that image.  So how should this be handled and are there any pitfalls of imposing rules of this nature on employees?

The body in the UK that provides advice and assistance to both employer and employees alike, ACAS (the Arbitration, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has recently published a guide to the sticky issue of Dress Code.  In it, they address tattoos and piercings and suggest that if an employer wants to have a rule around removal of piercings or coverage of tattoos, they are free to do so but should make sure that they consult with their employees first and that any rules that are introduced are necessary and reflect sound business reasons.

The greater question might be whether organizations should have such rules at all and whether by introducing something such as a ban on tattoos and body piercings, perhaps going so far as to not recruiting certain individuals because they present to the interview with tattoos or piercings, they are losing talent and not acting in the best interests of the business.  When even Samantha Cameron (the Prime Minister’s wife) and David Dimbleby (a venerable BBC journalist) have tattoos (obtained at the age of 75 in David Dimbleby’s case), you have to wonder if businesses needs to think outside the box on this issue.

The main risks of introducing a ban or rules around such matters is that they have to be applied equally to men and women and in a non-discriminatory fashion and if they are not, then claims could ensue.  It is fine to have different standards of dress for men and women (for example men have to wear a tie but women have to wear ‘business dress’), provided that the rules are more or less equal for both genders and that they are enforced fairly.

Tattoos and piercings are unlikely to have any religious connection and so religious discrimination is not going to be an issue, but modes of dress and the wearing of jewelry can have such connotations and in a recent case against British Airways, it was held that an employee should be able to wear a cross, as there was no health and safety issues in that case (unlike the person working in the National Health Service who brought the same claim and it was held that it was reasonable to require her not to wear a cross for health and safety reasons).

Setting aside the question of whether in 2014 employers would be helping themselves recruit the best talent by relaxing the rules around tattoos and piercings, what the ACAS guidance and the case law tells us about this tricky issue, is that if an employer wants to set a standard on appearance, it is free to do so, but it is important to engage with employees to work out what issues they may have with such a policy, ensure that any rules are imposed clearly and consistently and are based on sound business reasons, to avoid discrimination and disgruntled employees.