Workplace Report July 2016


Heads not heels should rule when drawing up dress code

The TUC is calling for a relaxation of dress codes at work as the country currently sits in a heatwave and the ‘heels case’ of Nicola Thorp is fresh in the memory. Time for Workplace Report to survey its contacts as to what employers are asking of their staff in terms of dress and personal grooming.

The much publicised case of receptionist Nicola Thorp, sent home from her job at professional services group PwC for refusing to wear high heels, brought the issue of dress codes into sharp media focus again. 

Arriving for her first day at work at PwC in December, Thorp — employed by the PwC’s outsourced front-of-house staff provider Portico — was told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.

Thorp was sent home without pay after refusing to go out and buy the required footwear.

The case hit the headlines, and a petition started by Thorp and calling for change in the law to make it illegal for employers to require women to wear high heels at work has received close to 150,000 signatories. 

The House of Commons Petition Committee, working with the Women and Equality Committee, has subsequently launched an inquiry into the issue of high heels and workplace dress codes, with Thorp and representatives of Portico, the Institute of Recruiters and the TUC, appearing before the committee last month.

The Acas advisory service has issued updated guidance on dress codes at work which states that dress codes should be non-discriminatory, applying to men and women equally. However, it suggests specific requirements can differ for women and men.

Acas guidance on dress codes 

Guidance on dress codes from the Acas advisory service makes the following observations. 

• Employers may have a policy that sets out a reasonable standard of dress and appearance for their organisation. It may also ask workers to wear a uniform to communicate a corporate image and ensure that customers can easily identify them.

• It is good practice when drafting or updating a dress code for an employer to consider the reasoning behind it. 

• Any dress code should be non-discriminatory and should apply to both men and women equally, but standards can be different for example a policy may state “business dress” for women, but may state for men “must wear a tie”.

• When setting out a policy employers should take into account employees who may dress in a certain way for religious reasons. Employers are advised to tread cautiously and to allow groups or individual employees to wear articles of clothing etc. that manifest their religious faith. Employers will need to justify the reasons for banning such items and should ensure they are not indirectly discriminating against these employees. Any restriction should be connected to a real business or safety requirement. 

• Employers are advised to think about the image they want to convey and about how they can work with employees to allow them to manifest their faith in a way that does not conflict with this image, or health and safety requirements, rather than provide a very strict and limiting dress code.

• A dress code can often be used by employers to ensure workers are safe and dressed appropriately. It should, however, relate to the job and be reasonable in nature, for example workers may be required to tie their hair back or cover it for hygiene reasons if working in a kitchen.

• An employer may introduce a dress code for health and safety reasons, for example health care workers may not be allowed to wear jewellery for safety reasons when around patients and certain clothing may not be allowed in factories while operating machinery.

• Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

• Employers may adopt a more casual approach to dress during the summer, but this may depend on the type of business. Some employers may require staff to wear business dress all year because of the nature of the work, for example for sales reps. 

• Employers may have a “no flip flop” policy as a health and safety precaution, but any restrictions should be clearly set out in the organisation’s policy.

• There may be times when employees wish to support different charities, and they would like to ask for exceptions to the normal dress code rules. On these occasions people should ask their line manager if it would be ok to take part.

• Employers may wish to promote a certain image through their workers, and this could mean asking workers to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work. Employers should carefully consider the reason behind the rule as they should have sound business reasons for requiring this. Any such appearance code should be properly communicated to all staff so expectations are understood.

A Workplace Report survey of reps on the LRD’s Payline database showed that Thorp’s experience was not an isolated one. More broadly, the wider issues of dress codes and uniform policies and provision were a bone of contention in a number of workplaces.


At one educational establishment, a rep reported that a dress code was provided for members of the customer service team, stipulating that men were required to wear black or blue brogues, and women were required to wear “court” shoes. When clarification was sought as to what was meant by “court” shoes, the rep was informed by a manager that this meant “high-heeled shoes with no strap”.

Citing both gender discrimination and health and safety concerns, the rep requested that the wording in the dress code be altered to the gender neutral “‘smart, comfortable, black or blue shoes”, but this was refused. 

The rep has nevertheless continued to wear strapped flat shoes in her workplace, and says she feels vindicated by the coverage the Thorp case has received in the media. 

The issue of appropriate footwear came up in several responses from our reps. There were also issues around employers expecting employees to wear certain colours or types of shoe and to purchase the necessary clothing out of their own pockets. This has also led to union branches requesting staff be paid allowances in order to purchase the necessary items (such as a shoe allowance).

An ongoing issue in a group of leisure centres was also reported, where reception staff had been requested to wear corporate colours and “dress shoes”, but where the employer would not actually provide a uniform or pay towards the cost to employees of purchasing the required clothing. The union said that the employer had also not clarified exactly what is meant by a “dress shoe.” 


In another publicised case earlier this year, a campaign by the Unite general union representing British Airways cabin crew forced the airline to lift its ban on women in its mixed fleet crew wearing trousers. 

This came after Unite reps had run a test case through the company’s internal procedures, and also followed a survey in which 83% of female Unite members working on the mixed fleet said they wanted the option of wearing trousers. 

Unite regional officer Matt Smith said that it was “ridiculous” that the company had still been “employing old fashioned views and treating women differently”.

Public services union UNISON has issued negotiating advice on dress codes which states that many workers “appreciate dress codes which do not differentiate according to gender”. 

UNISON has also highlighted the difficulties differentiating between what men and women are required to wear causes for workers in the process of gender transition. Its negotiating advice states that where dress codes are different for men and women, “branches should negotiate flexibility for members in the process of transition and for other members who require it”.

Both the UNISON women’s conference and its local government conference adopted resolutions on dress codes this year that also emphasised these points. 

UNISON women’s conference dress code resolution 

A UNISON women’s conference resolution earlier this year noted that “many women workers do not wish to dress in accordance with gendered stereotypes of what is ‘appropriate women’s dress’”. 

It stated that arguments that some forms of gender expression are unprofessional, or societal norms that dictate that certain items be restricted to only one gender, have been “used for too long to shield bigots from criticism, pander to sexism and entrench specific conceptions of gender which have no place in a modern, progressive society.” 

The resolution said that employers should only have dress codes “that serve a legitimate purpose, such as maintaining a desired image with customers and clients, or aiding staff visibility”, and that this can be attained without gender-specific dress requirements. 

In particular, in noted that “some women and many non-binary workers find it difficult or impossible to follow a gendered dress code and be true to their own identity.” And “for trans women who are at the beginning of, or are considering social gender transition, the anxiety which often occurs around expressing your gender in a new way in the workplace, is compounded by the fear of being disciplined by management.” 

Where different versions of uniform are available, the resolution therefore stated that “staff should be able to choose from what has been historically defined as the ‘male’ or ‘female’ items without the need to explain why”.

"Appropriate" dress

A number of examples of dress codes were provided by reps in our survey. These were sometimes set out in specific workplace policies or as periodic communications reminding staff about “appropriate” dress. 

What is “appropriate” dress will also often depend on the role of the member of staff, with the requirements usually stricter for front-of-house and customer or client-facing roles. 

The need to dress “suitably” or to reflect the “professional” nature of the role is often mentioned in dress codes, and those in customer or client-facing roles are sometimes reminded that they are “ambassadors” for the organisation. 

Rather than specifying what to wear, several dress codes seen by Workplace Report provide a list of clothing that shouldn’t be worn. 

For example, the dress code of a financial services company asks that staff do not wear “sporting and recreational clothes such as jeans, trainers, football shirts, tracksuits, flip flops and beachwear to the office.” A number of workplace dress codes advise against this kind of informal wear. 

A dress code for library staff in a local authority area is more extensive in listing the following clothing as unacceptable: vest/spaghetti strapped/low cut tops; transparent or see-through blouses, skirts, dresses or shirts; shorts, short skirts/dresses; political badges or emblems, items of clothing using logos as the main design; denim, sportswear or leisure clothing, such as track suits; leggings worn as trousers (worn below dresses or longer tunics is acceptable); and flip flops, canvas/deck shoes, trainers (though discreet black trainers may be worn).

Sometimes complaints or comments from other members of staff are cited as a reason for such policies or communications. 

For example, a communication from a local authority employer referred to representations made by employees regarding the way some of their colleagues dress for work. 

The communication reminded staff that the public “as our customers and our colleagues” expect staff “to look as though we are dressing for business rather than dressing for the beach or night club,” and that such attire was “not acceptable”. 

The communication also suggested that staff needed to think about “the way we look in terms of our own personal grooming”, underlining that “it is also important that we should not look scruffy”.

Some reps reported a concern with regards to comments and communications about appropriate dress straying into the personal. For example, a rep at one local authority referred to a staff workshop to discuss the workplace “business wear” policy, at which some present were “putting their own personal views forward” and that this was becoming “quite uncomfortable”. 

But the rep also reported the view of the union that the proposal for a formal policy had come about because management “felt uncomfortable approaching individuals where there may be a cause for concern around someone’s appearance.”

At another workplace, a rep said that female staff had being taken aside and requested to dress more appropriately, even where there is no formal dress code, and this had caused consternation. 

Some dress codes also set out broader stipulations on appearance, also covering hair styles, facial hair, piercings and tattoos. 

A policy on appearance and “what to wear” by supermarket giant Sainsbury’s says that “it doesn’t matter what colour your hair is as long as it is kept clean, neat and tidy”. And on facial hair it requests that staff be clean shaven or have “a tidy beard or moustache”. Any tattoos “need to be inoffensive and unobtrusive”. 

TUC call to relax dress codes in heatwave 

With temperatures of over 30o, the July heatwave prompted the TUC to call on employers to relax workplace dress codes so that staff could work through the heatwave as comfortably as possible. 

In addition to other measures to keep workers cool (including adequate air conditioning and cool drinks), the TUC called on employers to allow staff to adopt less formal attire, for example allowing short sleeves, vest tops and shorts and not expecting staff to wear jackets and ties.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that working in “sweltering conditions” can be “unbearable and dangerous” and that while “shorts and vest tops may not be appropriate attire for all, nobody should be made to wilt in the heat for the sake of keeping up appearances”.


Uniforms are provided to Sainsbury’s store staff, but it is up to staff “to keep it smart, clean and ironed”. Its policy states that if you come into work “and your appearance doesn’t meet our standards, we’ll ask you to go home and change”. The time taken to do this will be unpaid, and if it happens repeatedly “it will become a disciplinary matter”. 

There are generally strict dress codes for police officers – particularly uniformed ones. For example, a dress code for one regional police force states that badges, lanyards and wristbands are banned unless they are issued by the force, or clearly related to a charity associated with the police service, a police staff association or a recognised trade union. The only exceptions are items produced by the Royal British Legion during the period of the poppy appeal. Facial hair must be neatly trimmed (unless religious requirements dictate otherwise) and must not be dyed in conspicuously “unnatural” colours. 

Officers on foot patrol are not permitted to wear sunglasses unless they provide evidence that this is absolutely necessary. Facial studs, including tongue studs, cannot be worn – unless required for operational need. Tattoos must be covered, and those on the face or visible above the collar are not permitted. A branch rep told Workplace Report that the tattoo element of the policy had been an issue and was currently under discussion. 

The provision of specific workwear or uniforms is common in a number of sectors. Some employers also provide an allowance so that suitable workwear can be bought. However, the nature of the uniforms or the requirement itself has created problems in some workplaces. This often relates to the comfort of the uniform issued or the material used, and in some cases raises issues of discrimination. 

Uniforms for female staff

A rep representing police staff said there was a problem with the uniforms issued to female staff. The trousers provided are of a heavy material. Women who are menopausal suffer hot flushes and have recently commented that the uniform, in particular, the trousers are very hot to wear. The rep said that there was a need for lighter weight uniform for women experiencing the menopause.

At a local fire brigade, a FBU rep reported problems in relation to the provision of uniforms for female firefighters. Again this raised issues of discrimination as well as concerns from a health and safety perspective. The rep reported problems with the delayed provision of adequately fitting personal protective equipment (PPE)/fire kit for women firefighters, and “major issues getting the service to swiftly provide maternity uniform for our women firefighters when needed”.

An FBU rep at another local fire brigade also reported problems with regards to the uniform issued to women firefighters. He said that problems included the trousers not being “of female cut” and therefore “uncomfortable to wear”. In addition, zips were dropping open because of the cut, and female firefighters are being told to “take them up” as the trousers are often the wrong length leg. 

The trousers are also of a high polyester content, and this is causing “odour issues”, particularly as they are worn under the fire kit, leading the wearers to sweat. The rep said that female firefighters found this “distressing”, and that work is “progressing” to find a suitable alternative, “but seems to be taking forever”.

Poor quality uniforms

In the prison sector, a Community union official referred to complaints about a uniform provided at a prison in Scotland operated by the outsourcing provider Serco. Union members complained that the quality of the uniform was poor, and female members complained that it was degrading. Serco had planned to roll the new uniform out nationally. The union intervened and through negotiation secured a more suitable uniform to be used across Serco prisons. 

A number of responses from Payline contacts referred to complaints about uniforms that wearers find embarrassing or humiliating to wear, or about poor quality of uniforms (including colours that run and stain other clothing). 

Cleaning uniforms

The issue of who is responsible for washing uniforms and whether the cost of doing so should be reimbursed -or an allowance for doing so provided - has also come up.

At a food waste disposal and recycling company, a Unite rep reported that a laundered uniform service was provided across the site given the dirty nature of the work. However, when previously outsourced drivers were brought in-house, the drivers were provided with a uniform, but expected to launder this themselves. The union took up the issue, lodging a collective grievance and dispute. It was on the verge of seeking Acas involvement when the company relented to the union’s demands, extending the laundered uniform service to drivers. 

Cleanliness of uniforms is paramount in the health sector, in order to minimise risk of contamination and infections spreading. Royal College of Nursing (RCN) guidance on uniform and work wear suggests that local policies/guidance detail the available laundering facilities, and if no facilities are available, set out alternative arrangements. Guidance/policies should set out washing temperature, use of detergent, drying/ironing, storage and transport of uniforms, and how contaminated uniforms should be handled. Suitable changing facilities should also be identified. 

The RCN also say that organisations must provide sufficient uniforms to enable freshly laundered clothing to be worn for each shift or work session. This should include consideration of the needs of bank and agency staff. 

Employees that are obliged to purchase, clean or repair uniforms for work can claim tax relief from HMRC. The standard cost rate for uniform maintenance is £60 (for 2016/17) – meaning that tax relief can be claimed on this £60 annually, but higher cost rates are set out for some specific occupations (see Uniform tax rebate website).

Tax relief is not available if the employer provides the uniform and laundering facilities. 

Personal protective equipment

Reps also reported other problems relating to the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to be worn for work. 

A GMB rep reported on an issue regarding the “impractical” protective clothing staff were required to wear at British Gas Smart Metering. The rep said that the staff were sometimes working in searing heat, and were not wearing the PPE as it was so hot and cumbersome. 

The union pushed the business to take action, and, after a review of all PPE, found lightweight alternatives that staff are now able to safely wear.

At a food company, a UNITE rep referred to an issue with safety footwear provided to staff. The company has refused to provide normal safety boots to freezer staff if transferred to another area to work. Freezer staff have boots suitable for -25° and their feet soon overheat if transferred to another store. The union is contesting this decision.