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After a hot and summery July, you may have noticed an increase in staff wearing clothes that are more suitable for a day on the beach than the…

After a hot and summery July, you may have noticed an increase in staff wearing clothes that are more suitable for a day on the beach rather than a day in the office. We look at the issues surrounding summer dress codes and how your organisation can manage employees who may need to rethink their summer work wardrobe.

In certain industries, for example retail and finance, it will normally be reasonable for employers to require staff to wear a uniform or uphold a certain standard of dress to project a professional image or promote a sense of recognition or identity as part of the employer's organisation. Equally, it will generally be seen as acceptable for employers to introduce dress codes to protect their own employees or other members of the public. This may involve, for example, the wearing of protective clothing for hygiene or health and safety reasons.

However, the hot weather sometimes leads to employees adopting an over-relaxed attitude to dress codes, regardless of whether or not the employer has announced a temporary relaxation of the requirements of the code. 

Therefore, during periods of hot weather, it might be beneficial to consider setting clear guidelines from the outset clarifying what is expected of employees in relation to summer dress. Don’t be afraid to be specific: you will ordinarily be able to prohibit specific items that you consider inappropriate such as t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, in order to maintain your business reputation or for health and safety reasons.

Of course, there are always some potential pitfalls to consider when drawing up a summer dress code. So, you should consider whether your organisation can justify different dress requirements for men and women. For example, allowing female employees to attend work in sandals and sleeveless tops, whilst insisting that male employees wear suits and ties, could lead to sex discrimination claims.

Also bear in mind that some staff may be unable to comply with dress codes because of religious or cultural requirements and you should be particularly sensitive to potential claims for discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. You may, in certain circumstances, be able to justify restrictions particularly on health and safety grounds, if your dress-requirement is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In most cases, a mutually satisfactory outcome can be achieved through informal consultation.

Even where there is no discrimination, employees may nevertheless have justifiable reasons for not wearing particular clothing - for example, where it induces a medical condition or other discomfort. You should treat all objections seriously, as failure to do so may lead to grievances or, in a worst case scenario an employee resigning and claiming constructive unfair dismissal.

However, employers should never be afraid to enforce a reasonable dress code and non-compliance with the code can be a disciplinary offence if the employee has no good reason for refusal. Where an employee's appearance does not meet with expectations, you should meet with them in private, explain why it is inappropriate, and invite them to explain why they are not complying with your organisation's requirements. Where you consider the employee does not have a good reason for not complying with the expected standard of dress, you should give them adequate time to improve their appearance before considering disciplinary action, but repeated infractions can be dealt with as misconduct offences.

So do not despair if your employees have been carried away by the summer spirit. A private word with the individual should do the trick in most cases. And in any event, the Great British Summer may yet have proven to be somewhat short-lived!

Andrew Tomlinson, Solicitor, andrew.tomlinson@weightmans.com