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Untidy uniform

Can you terminate an employee for a uniform policy breach?

Earlier this year an employment dispute made national news as a British Airways employee claimed he was dismissed from his job due to wearing his hair up in a bun.
The customer service employee, who had only been employed for two weeks, said the airline sought to justify his dismissal on the basis that his hairstyle did not fit their uniform policy. Allegedly, before the dismissal the employee was given the option to resolve the company’s concerns by either cutting it, putting it in a turban or getting dreadlocks, but he was sacked when he refused.

The employee stated that the issue was never raised during the interview process and questioned if a female employee can work with her hair in a bun than why can’t he. He claimed British Airways’ decision was discriminatory on the grounds of his sex.

A similar incident, concerning a clothing policy, also caught the attention of the press when an agency worker providing services as a receptionist at PwC was sent home for refusing to wear high heels which did not comply with the agency’s appearance guidelines.

Employer guidance

Employers can dismiss staff who do not abide by a “reasonable” uniform policy. A sensible dress code can be enforced by an employer. However it would be difficult to see how the above example of requiring a receptionist to wear high heels could be justifiable. Men and women can have different dress codes as long as the level of smartness is equivalent. A policy that states women with long hair can tie it back in a bun but this is unacceptable for a man is arguably directly discriminatory.

Employers should also ensure that a uniform policy doesn’t put a group of people with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage as this could amount to indirect discrimination. For example, someone who wishes to wear particular items of religious jewellery or someone with a disability relating to a skin disorder who cannot wear particular items of clothing etc. may not be able to comply with some aspects of a strict dress code. To avoid such a claim, employers should make sure that any uniform rules that could impact such groups of employees can be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate business aim such as health and safety considerations or the need to project a professional image to clients.