To stink, or not to stink - what is the policy?

Rachel Spence reports on the office politics of appearance

Journalist Ian White kicked up a stink when he was dismissed from the Kidderminster Shuttle last February because of intolerable body odour. Last month, an employment tribunal heard that, although he was warned repeatedly about his appearance, only once had his BO problem been mentioned. White, however, lost the case and nationwide, workers reached anxiously for their deodorants as they realised that poor personal hygiene makes for terrible office politics.

But exactly what rights employers have over the way their staff present themselves is a matter of some dispute. Every year, employment tribunals hear a variety of cases relating to employees' dress, hairstyles and jewellery, as well as dubious washing habits. Who wins and loses takes one into complex territory, where personal freedom and civil rights conflict with corporate demands.

To negotiate this potential minefield, social psychologist Halla Beloff suggests companies determine a clear policy. "Although the terms will depend on whether employees appear in public or are `backroom people,' the welfare of other staff must be respected."

Roy Davis, head of communications at human resources specialists SHL, explains: "People respond to knowing the rules of the game. Companies should have a written code, clearly communicated. Our own policy, of `smart- casual' for the office and `business dress' in front of clients, is on our intranet."

SHL's code, however, makes no reference to personal hygiene. "I think that would be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut," reflects Davis. "Those issues are best dealt with one-to-one by a manager; if a company has an open culture, it shouldn't be difficult."

Ironically, at Marks & Spencer's head office, the effort to establish a less formal culture has resulted in no written policies at all. Spokesperson Jane Lowe says: `Traditionally, we've had a `suit and tie' mentality, but recently we've embraced the `smart-casual' look." Befitting this more relaxed image, M&S's only formal communication is notification of `dress- down' Fridays via e-mail. As for personal hygiene, Lowe agrees with Davis: "It would be prescriptive and inappropriate to put anything in writing. If someone suffered from body odour, a line manager should deal with it quickly and sensitively."

Written policy or not, employers are in a strong position thanks to the recognition of `implied contract' within employment law. David Mattes of Acas explains: "Implied terms are those not spelled out in the employment contract, either because they're too obvious to mention or are clearly the custom and practise of the business."

Thus a Merseyside bus driver was sacked for refusing to wear proper uniform. His actual dismissal occurred when he wore a non-regulation shirt, but his final warning was a response to the Father Christmas suit he donned for the festive season.

In fact, it is the correct appliance of warning procedure which usually makes or breaks these cases. "Companies are entitled to ask employees to present themselves so as not to damage business, but employees must also be given the opportunity to comply with that," says Mattes.

Nevertheless, employers don't have carte blanche; unnecessarily restrictive demands are not tolerated. Likewise, no organisation may discriminate on race or gender grounds, although these cases are often fraught with complexity. In 1994, a female shop assistant, sacked for refusing to wear cosmetics which exacerbated her bad skin condition, appealed on the grounds of sex discrimination. The tribunal found against her, ruling that company policy was `no more favourable' to men.

Fortunately most organisations don't come across such problems with staff too frequently. "Usually people are skilled at presenting themselves properly," explains Beloff. "Sociologists call it `response matching', meaning that most of us try to fit in with our peers, dressing alike and picking up each other's language."

So why do some people still slip through the net? Roy Davis believes that some people just aren't team players, but he continues: "Good people management requires care and concern for everyone. In any office you need a bit of mentoring."

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