The article reports the story of a 42 year old female senior executive who was told to go to an image consultant by her male boss in the hope of improving her sales results. The employee in question claims that she was happy with the advice she received from the consultant who commented on all aspects of her appearance from her clothing to her make up and hair style.
There are numerous pieces of research which suggests a link between appearance and employer perception and career achievements, and indeed some recent research suggests that the formality of appearance can even impact upon workplace performance. The suggestion that "casual dress leads to a casual attitude" may seem outdated in the modern workplace, but it seems that there may be some evidence to support it. It is therefore entirely understandable that employers want their employees to present themselves in a manner appropriate to the industry they work in, and to impose certain standards on personal presentation.
However, whilst the individual in the BBC article was comfortable with the suggestion that she overhauls her image, there are clearly pitfalls in being overly prescriptive about employees' appearance. Indeed, if not done sensitively and proportionately, it has the potential to open up the employer to a range of discrimination claims. For example, being more specific about the requirements for the presentation of female staff members compared to male staff members, or imposing stricter standards on women, could lead to a sex discrimination claim. Similarly, a uniform or dress requirement which prevents employees of a certain religion from wearing a symbol of their religion could in certain circumstances give rise to a religious discrimination claim. There is also the risk of an age discrimination claim if older members of staff are targeted in terms of their image whereas younger staff members are not.
In addition to the risk of facing an uncapped discrimination claim, there are, of course, also broader employee relation issues in being overly prescriptive about appearance. It can risk patronising staff, undermine good performance, result in public ridicule (see the example of the 44 page UBS dress code mentioned in the BBC article) and stifle individuality.
Most employers choose to take a fairly light touch in relation to putting in place requirements for employee appearance and instead trust their staff to dress appropriately for the work they have to carry out, and have informal discussions where appearance falls below the standards expected. Where an employer intends to put in place a more prescriptive and detailed policy on employee image legal advice should be sought and careful consideration given to the effect on employee relations.