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Dress and appearance survey 2018

Author: Sarah Byrne

XpertHR explores the different approaches taken by employers to dress and appearance in the workplace and the challenges involved in ensuring that rules are followed.

Setting guidelines about what employees should wear at work can help to protect, or even improve, an organisation's image. However, what is considered appropriate at one workplace may not be acceptable at another. In some organisations, health and safety or food hygiene requirements may dictate the dress code, while for others, anything goes. Our latest survey looks at the approach taken to dress and appearance by 477 employers across a broad range of sectors.

Dress/appearance policies

More than nine in 10 (91.6%) organisations operate some form of dress and appearance policy. Respondents were invited to choose as many responses as applicable from our list of options to cover their various employee groups, as chart 1 shows. While organisations often have dress and appearance guidelines, they do not typically form part of an employee's contract. Just 2.7% stated that this was the case, although 27.3% include guidelines in a staff handbook that forms part of the contract. Others rely on more informal arrangements or verbal guidelines. Some respondents explained that while there is no company dress policy in place, they do follow other regulations that have an impact on dress and appearance, including infection control, health and safety rules and guidelines relating to the handling and preparation of food.

Chart 1: Format of the dress and appearance policy

Chart 1: Format of the dress and appearance policy

n = 477 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the XpertHR 2018 survey on dress and appearance, including the main reasons for introducing a dress and appearance code, the types of clothing allowed or restricted and attitudes to enforcement.

XpertHR's benchmarking service has the full data on all the questions from this survey, which also covers:

Who sets the guidelines?

When it comes to setting the guidelines on dress and appearance, the following individuals from across the organisation may be involved:

  • HR staff (61.3%);
  • head office (30.9%);
  • line managers (19%);
  • regional managers (5.7%);
  • others, including managing directors, chief executives, board members, business owners and staff committees (29.3%).

Reasons for introducing a policy

Most of the employers in our survey (82.4%) use a dress/appearance policy to boost or safeguard their organisation's external image.

Other reasons include:

  • health and safety (53.8%);
  • to reinforce internal company culture (51%);
  • practicality (35%);
  • hygiene (23.1%); and
  • to distinguish/identify employees (19.7%).

Dress codes

Dress codes can vary greatly according to job role. Table 1 shows the different formats that the dress code can take for various occupational groups. A "smart" dress code is most commonly followed by employees in customer/client-facing roles and by senior managers. Managers and professional and office staff are most likely to be dressed in "smart-casual" clothing. Unsurprisingly, employees in trade/operative roles are more likely to wear a uniform or protective equipment than any other form of work wear.

Table 1: Format of dress code by occupational group

% of organisations
Smart Smart casual Relaxed Uniform/protective equipment No employees of this type
n = 437 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.
Senior managers 44.6 45.5 7.8 1.8 0.2
Managers 38.0 49.7 8.5 3.4 0.5
Professional and office staff 30.7 53.3 12.1 3.4 0.5
Customer/client-facing roles 44.9 33.2 4.8 14.9 2.3
Trade/operative roles 4.3 11.0 8.9 43.2 32.5
Other 3.7 8.0 5.0 8.7 74.6

Uniforms

In organisations where staff are required to wear a uniform/protective equipment, nine in 10 (90.6%) employers pay for this in full. Employers make a financial contribution in 3.3% of cases and just 1.9% expect employees to pay in full themselves. Of the remaining 4.2%, the majority state that while most of the protective equipment is paid for by the company, employees have to make a contribution towards safety boots or shoes. One organisation also provides a footwear allowance.

Smart dress

We asked survey respondents that indicated that "smart" dress is a requirement for some or all of their employees to describe their definition of "smart" dress. Most report that they expect suits with a shirt and tie for men, and a blouse and skirt, trousers or a dress with a jacket for women. Some said that ties are not essential for men unless meeting with clients.

Smart casual and relaxed

Our survey asked employers to tell us which items of clothing, footwear and accessories from a list of 17 are allowed, allowed with restrictions or not allowed, within their "smart-casual" and/or "relaxed" dress codes, as applicable.

Within a smart-casual dress code, items that are most likely to be unacceptable are frayed or ripped clothing (banned by 89.8%), clothes with prominent logos or images/messages/symbols that could cause offence (also vetoed by 89.8%) and cut off tops (82.8%). Items including jeans (51%), t-shirts (50.2%) and trainers (42.8%) are likely to be allowed but with restrictions. Typically allowed are short-sleeved shirts (89.2%) and shoes with high heels (77.3%). Subscribers to XpertHR Benchmarking can access the full data on the garments that are allowed, allowed with restrictions and not allowed under smart-casual dress codes.

Within a relaxed dress code, the three items most commonly prohibited by employers are clothes with prominent logos or images/messages/symbols that could cause offence (79.5%), cut-off tops (65.4%) and frayed or ripped clothing (61.5%). Items allowed with restrictions include shorts (46.3%), tops with spaghetti straps (44.8%) and low-cut dresses/tops and sportswear (both 40.3%). Typically allowed are short-sleeved shirts (100%), jeans (87.2%) and t-shirts (83.7%). XpertHR Benchmarking has full data on the garments that employers allow, allow with restrictions and do not allow under relaxed dress codes.

Appearance

In addition to policies on dress, many employers have guidelines about what standards are appropriate when it comes to employee appearance, to protect the image of their organisation.

Tattoos and piercings

Tattoos and piercings can be challenging for employers, particularly when staff members are customer facing, work in healthcare roles or operate machinery. However, more than half of our respondents allow tattoos (61.6%) and piercings (59%) without restrictions. Where there are restrictions in place, some employers told us that they ask for tattoos or piercings to be covered up when meeting clients. Others said that they prefer employees not to wear nose studs. Tattoos on the face, neck or hands, or featuring offensive messages or images are also unpopular with respondents.

Jewellery

Prominent jewellery is allowed without restrictions by 62.1% of organisations. However, as with piercings, safety-related issues can arise for employees who work with machinery or small children. Food regulations also limit jewellery wear for some employees.

Religious accessories

Religious accessories are allowed by the majority of organisations (85.4%). One private-sector-services employer commented: "The company recognises the diversity of cultures and religions of its employees and will take a sensitive approach when this affects dress requirements." As with jewellery and piercings, limitations mainly relate to health and safety and food hygiene guidelines, although several organisations added that they prefer accessories to be discreet and not ostentatious.

Hair

Organisations were also invited to share their views on "non-natural" hair colour and facial hair. Facial hair is allowed without restrictions by most (88%) employers. However, respondents told us that staff involved in food handling and preparation must follow hygiene guidelines and are often required to cover facial hair. Some respondents pointed out that they expect facial hair to be kept neat and tidy. Brightly dyed hair is unrestricted by 85.4% of respondents although some said that that it would not be considered appropriate for customer-facing staff or those working with children for whom employees may represent role models.

Implementing the dress code

Enforcing a dress/appearance policy can be challenging. We asked respondents which statement best describes the way that the policy is viewed at their organisation, illustrated in chart 2.

Just 6.6% of organisations report that dress and appearance codes are adhered to without exception, but just over two-thirds state that guidelines are largely followed with little enforcement action needed. Where guidelines are widely ignored, just 3.9% of organisations are taking any action to change this.

Over the past two years one in 10 employers (10.1%) in our survey has had to discipline staff for failing to comply with the rules on dress and appearance. In more than half of these cases (56.8%), an informal discussion was the method used to tackle the issue. However, for more than a quarter (29.5%), a formal disciplinary procedure was used. Several respondents indicated that employees failing to wear personal protective equipment had triggered the disciplinary action.

Chart 2: Adherence to the dress policy

Chart 2: Adherence to the dress policy

n = 437 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Relaxing the dress code

In certain circumstances and at particular times of the year some employers relax their dress code rules. Unusually hot or cold weather sometimes prompts organisations to ease restrictions on certain items of clothing, while others may allow staff to dress more casually if they are taking part in charity days or at Christmas. Dress-down Fridays are also becoming increasingly popular, as illustrated in chart 3. Just 5.3% of respondents said their organisation's policy is never relaxed.

Chart 3: Circumstances in which the dress code is relaxed

Chart 3: Circumstances in which the dress code is relaxed

n = 437 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Avoiding discrimination claims

It is important that a dress/appearance code does not conflict with legislation outlawing discrimination against employees on the grounds of any protected characteristics and many employers now typically take steps to ensure this does not happen. Almost two-thirds (61.3%) said that their dress/appearance policy is flexible and makes it clear that it can be adapted to meet particular requirements. One in five organisations (20.8%) consulted employees about the policy, while slightly fewer (16.5%) turned to legal experts for help with the content of the policy. Diversity groups and/or diversity experts were consulted on the policy by 8.5% of organisations.

Complaints about the dress code

One organisation in eight that operates a dress code has received a complaint about the policy. According to our respondents, not being allowed to wear shorts is one of the most common employee gripes and certain items of footwear (flip-flops, sandals and trainers) regularly provoke discussion between staff and employers. A lack of consistency across various staff groups and different managers about what is acceptable is another frequently reported issue.

Other complaints include:

  • uniforms and protective equipment being ill-fitting or uncomfortable;
  • men not wanting to wear ties;
  • employees with brightly dyed hair or tattoos feeling that they are not being allowed "to be themselves"; and
  • sportswear being banned.

Changing the dress code

Changes to dress codes are not uncommon - one-third (33.5%) of participants said that their policy had been adjusted in the past two years. Some of the changes have involved minor tweaks to the existing policy while others have been more wide-ranging.

A number of organisations told us that they have introduced dress-down Fridays, while others have switched to a more relaxed dress code, for example, "dress for your day", where employees select what they wear according to their activities on a particular day. Some have introduced very specific changes, for instance, one organisation said: "Ladies can now wear sandals as long as the toe is closed in and it has a back strap", while another has made waistcoats non-compulsory.

Internal restructuring and business acquisitions have led to changes in dress and appearance policies for other organisations. One private-sector-services company said: "We acquired a new business in August 2017 and their dress code was smart casual. We have rolled out the policy so it is relaxed across the board." However, although in many cases there has been a move towards more relaxed work wear, some employers have adopted a more formal policy. One respondent told us that managers must now wear a shirt and tie.

In several cases the wording of a policy has been amended to include transgender or gender-neutral clauses, or has been altered so that it is less gender specific. Other respondents told us that the wording of existing guidelines has been changed to clarify what is acceptable and what is not. One employer has revised its policy from being prescriptive and telling staff what they should wear, to simply telling them what is unsuitable in the workplace.

Employee feedback is a further reason for changes to dress codes. One organisation allowed its employees to vote on whether they wanted to move from the existing policy to "dress for your day". Another employer, after canvassing employee opinion, now allows non-patient-facing staff to dress in a "business casual" manner.

Our research

This report is based on original research carried out online in July 2018. Responses were received from 477 organisations, employing more than 722,000 people. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 341 (71.5%) are in private-sector services;
  • 87 (18.2%) are manufacturing-and-production organisations; and
  • 49 (10.3%) are in the public sector.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 281 (59%) with between one and 249 employees;
  • 114 (23.9%) that employ 250 to 999; and
  • 82 (17.1%) with 1,000 or more employees.

The smallest organisation employs 10 and the largest employs 140,000 people. The average number employed is 1,514.

What should I do now?

  • Read our dress and appearance policy to help you set out or review your organisation's approach to workplace attire.
  • Use this task to help you to establish a workplace dress code.
  • Check the good practice manual to ensure you are clear about legal implications relating to dress code and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.