Successive hot summers have forced the question of a workplace dress code onto the employment agenda. Christine Hayhurst offers some advice on how to keep staff on side

The heat waves experienced throughout the country last summer left many people gasping for breath - and struggling to choose what to wear at work. And already this year, teachers have been criticised for dressing in a manner considered too casual for the classroom. They were accused of setting a poor example to pupils and one that undermined the formal environment required for successful learning.
A number of employers call for staff to conform to specific dress and appearance standards as a way of promoting their business image - particularly in the fmcg sector where uniforms are often provided.
So to what extent should dress standards be applied on the hottest days of the year?
At its simplest, employers need to apply a sensible, even-handed and sensitive approach to the issue of dress and attempt to accommodate individual needs while ensuring staff recognise the importance of maintaining brand values. After all, while there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes suitable clothing, uniforms on the shop floor serve a purpose and there are almost always different versions available. Just think about the number of team strips any football club has. They all identify the players but do so in a variety of ways.
Employees, too, have a responsibility to be considerate of the needs of a business. They must maintain a professional look and be sensitive towards the people they work alongside. And even customers, while having certain expectations of staff, surely appreciate the need for them to avoid, quite literally, getting hot under the collar.
Any employer particularly concerned about dress standards within the organisation could consider introducing a dress code. Before making any changes, however, it’s important to talk to staff about why specific dress standards are necessary. Most employees appreciate the need for appropriate dress in the workplace and staff are less likely to challenge a new rule if they know the reason behind it and understand how it will benefit the business. So, ask staff what they think should, and shouldn’t, be allowed. Self-imposed guidelines are more acceptable than regulations from above.
Once the decision has been taken, make sure any regulations are clearly communicated to all staff. It may be appropriate to include requirements about staff appearance in handbooks or even directly in contracts of employment.
Be sensitive to ethnic needs - if you employ staff from a variety of backgrounds, you need to show consideration for their beliefs.
For example, some religions frown on too much exposure of skin and their followers may well start to feel uncomfortable surrounded by colleagues who ‘dress with less’. Religious
discrimination became unlawful last year and employers who have not already done so may need to assess how dress codes could be adapted to allow employees to feel comfortable.
Remember, the legislation is about more than allowing individuals to wear clothes and accessories required by their religion, it’s about preventing persecution in any shape or form.
Sex discrimination can also be an issue. Last year a back-office worker used sex discrimination law to challenge a requirement that he should wear a tie to work. He won. So to avoid sex discrimination claims from your staff, ensure dress requirements are applied fairly. If men are required to wear suits and ties, women should dress formally.
And if problems continue to arise, you could consider providing a corporate uniform - a number of high profile organisations use image consultants who will work with staff to develop a uniform that meets the style expectations of employees while maintaining the professional image of the organisation. And don’t overlook the work environment itself. Your concerns about dress might be easily solved by the introduction of a few fans during the warm weather and heaters during winter.
As long as management provides clear guidance and shows a degree of flexibility in warmer conditions, office dress codes need not be a matter of dispute. Of course, British summers are never reliable and if gloomy forecasts of a cool summer prove to be true, the debate will be whether to invest in a new winter wardrobe rather than how to cool off.
n Christine Hayhurst is director of professional affairs at the Chartered Management Institute