Flexible dress code: a new risk to employers

News that investment bank Goldman Sachs has relaxed its dress code was widely welcomed. Many see the move as a shift towards a changing culture for an industry largely driven by tradition. However, the example led by the investment bank, which may prompt other businesses to follow suit, raises some important considerations for employers looking to adopt the same strategy.

What is ‘good judgement’ in determining appropriateness?

The initiative rolled out by Goldman Sachs was underpinned by guidance  from the bank stating: “Of course, casual dress is not appropriate every day and for every interaction and we trust you will consistently exercise good judgement in this regard”.  The notion of ‘good judgement’ is a subjective one and gives employees full discretion to decide what constitutes ‘appropriate’.

For a sector such as banking, ‘appropriateness’ may not be so clear cut. Many employees working for the likes of Goldman Sachs may prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to what they wear at work, given the perception of the industry as being one of traditional and professionalism. The initiative was not unanimously welcomed by the bank’s employees, some of whom felt that being in casual dress would highlight to their bosses a lack of client meetings. Clearly not all employees enjoy the added pressure of having to exercise their discretion as to appropriateness.

What can employers do?

A flexible dress code raises potential equality and discrimination challenges. What constitutes appropriate for women in the workplace may not be the same for men. Employees ought not to be subjected to different rules depending on their individual characteristics.

Employers should be careful that judgements on appropriateness do not touch any protected characteristics. Clothing is a grey area that invites different interpretations according to individual taste. An individual’s attire often serves as a representation of religious, cultural and social beliefs, and employers should proceed with caution that judgements on dress are handled carefully and appropriately.

For a flexible dress code to work well, some kind of guidance is necessary to ensure the equal treatment of all employees. Having some consistency and transparency on what the company expects will narrow the scope for potential disputes with employees around workplace dress. It will also minimise the risk of having to have difficult conversations with employees about the topic, which can be awkward for both parties.

This article is for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking or deciding not to take any action.