There is currently no existing law in the UK specifically relating to dress codes and uniforms at work. This means employers can decide if and what rules to implement in the workplace. However, if an employer does decide to impose a dress code, they must ensure that the rules do not unlawfully discriminate against workers.
In this guide for employers, we consider the key factors when requiring workers to wear a work uniform and developing a dress code policy.
Do you need a dress code or uniform policy?
You may decide to implement a dress code in the workplace for the health & safety of your employees or to promote your organisation’s brand.
A dress code policy is used to communicate to your workforce what is required in terms of attire at work. This could involve requirements designed to protect the health & safety of your workforce, such as wearing PPE or tying hair back. Dress codes can also require uniforms to be worn to promote the organisation’s brand.
Your organisation’s rules on attire should be set out in a dress code policy. The policy should include:
- Policy brief and purpose. A short paragraph outlining how you expect your employees to dress at work.
- Scope. Who the policy applies to, for example those in customer-facing roles, or frontline healthcare.
- State the dress code. Detail the specifics of the rules and circumstances in which the rules will apply. For example, all clothes must be work-appropriate and project professionalism.
- Disciplinary consequences. This clause should set out the consequences of disregarding the dress code/uniform policy and the procedure that will be followed where there are allegations the rules have been broken.
Employers should have regard to any health and safety implications of their dress or uniform policy. For example, if an employer requires employees to wear particular shoes, then they should consider whether this may make employees more prone to trips and slips or injury to their feet.
What constitutes a uniform?
Attaching a permanent and conspicuous badge to what would otherwise be considered as ordinary clothing would generally be sufficient to constitute a uniform. Clothing can also be classed as a uniform if there is an integral branding feature and the employee would readily be recognised as wearing a uniform by the person in the street.
However, requiring employees to wear a certain colour t-shirt or trousers does not automatically constitute a work uniform. For example, a bank may wish to reinforce its corporate brand by requiring all customer-facing staff to wear a shirt or blouse in their corporate colours. This clothing would not be considered a uniform.
If an employer issues their staff with a set of branded polo shirts and then asks them to wear black or red tracksuit bottoms to match, the polo shirts will be classed as uniform (and can be deducted from employees’ wages), but employee purchased tracksuit bottoms are not and cannot be deducted.
Who pays for work uniforms?
There is no legal obligation placed on employers to pay for their employees’ compulsory uniforms, except for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Following a change to the law from 6 April 2022, the duty to provide suitable personal protective equipment PPE has been extended to all workers, not just employees where there is a health and safety risk to the worker in the work they carry out for the employer.
You cannot charge workers for the provision of PPE, although when their contract ends, they should return the clothes. If PPE is retained without your permission, you may be able to deduct the cost of replacing them from their wages, provided there is written provision to do so in their contract of employment.
While an employer does not have to pay for compulsory uniforms, in practice, it is generally advisable to provide workers with some form of financial contribution towards the cost of uniforms, both to support compliance with the policy and for positive workforce relations. For example, some employers may opt to provide a uniform allowance, while others provide workers with a certain number of each item of uniform for free, and then charge for any additional items of uniform. Any items that a worker pays for themselves is their property and does not need to be returned when their employment ends.
Employers are only permitted to deduct the cost of clothing from wages with there is a clear written contractual term allowing them to do so. Without such as contractual term, taking payment out of wages for uniforms would constitute an unlawful deduction, for which the worker could take legal action to recoup.
If there is a contractual provision allowing for wage deductions for uniforms, the employer must ensure that the amount of pay remaining is at least minimum wage level. It would be against the law if the worker’s pay falls below the relevant minimum wage rate after the deductions have been made for the cost of work uniform.
The worker’s average gross hourly rate should be used to determine if the pay is at the required level. This can be worked out by calculating the total of hours worked over the pay reference period and dividing that figure by the total amount earned over the relevant pay reference period. To calculate whether deductions will bring an employee below the NMW, their uniform payments should be deducted from their gross pay.
What if the uniform is damaged or not returned?
Employers can deduct money if an employee does not return their uniform after leaving the company or damage their uniform, provided there is a clause in their contract of employment to allow them to do this. If there is no clause, then the employer will be liable to a claim for unlawful deduction of wages.
If the employer is contractually allowed to make a deduction, again, they must ensure that the worker’s pay does not fall below the relevant statutory minimum wage level.
Tax relief for work uniforms
Clothing given to an employee is classed as an employment-related benefit, which is taxable to the cash equivalent of the cost to the employer (if it has been given to them free of charge). If the uniform is loaned to the employee, 20% of the market value is applied annually. This is the value of the clothing on the open market when sold by the employer.
Employees are not allowed to claim tax relief on the initial purchase cost of work uniform needed to perform their role. They can however claim for maintenance costs of such clothing, such as cleaning, repairing or replacing specialist clothing.
Can employees refuse to wear work uniform?
If an employee takes issue with the dress code and refuses to comply with uniform requirements, what are your options?
If the dress code is stated clearly within a policy and the employee’s contract, they cannot refuse to follow the dress code rules, unless the dress code unlawfully discriminates against them or if they have valid medical grounds.
If the issue relates to the cost of the uniform, it is for employers to look at ways to support the employee, such as offering an allowance.
An organisation’s dress code must not discriminate against workers based on any of the nine protected characteristics, as set out in the Equality Act 2010. For example, the dress code must apply to both men and women equally, even if there are different or separate requirements.
Reasonable adjustments also have to be made for any members of staff with a qualifying disability under the Equality Act. This could include making changes to elements of the role which place a disabled person at a significant disadvantage compared to non-disabled employees. This may include not imposing dress or uniform requirements if their impact is more onerous for a disabled employee.
An employer should also avoid including elements in a uniform or dress code policy that would unjustifiably conflict with an employee’s religion or religious beliefs. For example, a policy forbidding headwear would prejudice male Sikhs who must wear a turban. A dress code prohibiting visible crucifixes would likewise prejudice Christian employees.
That said, employers are allowed to make rules that are reasonable, even where they impact negatively on an individual who wants to manifest their religion. For example, frontline healthcare employers are likely to be allowed to ban the wearing of necklaces (and pendants such as crucifixes) by a medical professional involved in patient care on the basis of health and safety. However, this would not apply to a desk-bound receptionist.
Dress codes and uniform policies for men and women do not have to be identical, however, the standards the policy or code imposes should be equivalent. Employers have to avoid imposing sexist dress codes, such as insisting on women wearing high heels, skirts or make up. This means there must be equivalent or similar rules laid down for both male and female staff members. Dress codes and uniform policies must not lead to harassment by colleagues or customers, so any requirement on women to dress in a certain way is likely to be unlawful.
High heels in the workplace could also be a health concern because regular wear can cause physical harm, including permanent foot injuries and back problems. This could be considered unlawful because it treats women less favourably than men.
Additionally, it is sensible to avoid gender-specific prescriptive directives. A dress code requiring all employees to dress ‘smartly’ would be lawful, providing the definition of ‘smart’ is reasonable.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists advise on all aspects of workforce management and workplace policies and procedures. For advice on developing and implementing a dress code or work uniform policy, or for advice on uniform-related disputes, contact us. You can also access unlimited legal advice from our employment law experts, without the worry of costs, through our Triple A service.
Work uniform laws FAQs
Can my employer make me wear a uniform UK?
Work uniform laws UK allow employers to require all their employees to wear a uniform, however some flexibility is needed to avoid unlawful discrimination in the workplace.
Can you be made to wear a uniform at work?
Your employer may, within certain legal limits, be able to make you wear a uniform at work. Although, this should be expressly stated in your contract of employment.
Can your employer tell you what to wear?
Your contract, and any associated documents like the staff handbook, may state that you are required to dress in a certain way or wear a specific uniform.
Can my employer make me buy uniform?
Even if the wearing of a uniform is compulsory, there is no legal obligation on an employer to pay for a uniform. However, an employee cannot be charged for personal protective equipment (PPE).
Last updated: 6 April 2022