Job seekers from under-represented groups feel disadvantaged by confusing workplace dress codes

Posted on September 5, 2023

New research from Creative Access, a leading diversity & inclusion social enterprise, reveals that a lack of or unclear workplace and job interview dress codes and guidance is causing confusion, anxiety and feelings of disadvantage amongst job seekers, particularly for those from groups under-represented in many professions, in terms of their ethnicity, socio-economic status or disability.

Half (43%) of candidates surveyed say they have never received guidance on what to wear for a job interview or when starting a new job, yet 82% say they would find clear guidance helpful. Over half (55%) said they found the common dress code ‘smart casual’ confusing.

Over 2,000 people across the UK workforce were surveyed by Creative Access to understand how the experiences of job interviews and the workplace varied for individuals from different backgrounds. 

Lack of interview dress codes guidance is driving anxiety:

  • 59% of Black candidates worry ‘dressing like themselves’ or wearing their hair ‘naturally’ will result in discrimination at work
  • Almost half (48%) of respondents from lower socio-economic groups say they found navigating what to wear or how to style their hair for an interview challenging – compared to just a third (36%) of those from the wider workforce
  • Almost a third (27%) of people from Black, Asian and other ethnically diverse groups say they felt pressure to change their hair for an interview

Guidance on hair or clothing expectations is also important for those who identify as neurodivergent:

  • Over a third (37%) of neurodivergent people have never received guidance on what to wear for a job interview
  • When asked, if they would find it difficult to decide what is appropriate to wear and or how to style your hair for a job interview: 59% of neurodivergent individuals said yes, citing two main reasons:
    • That ‘smart casual’ is confusing (58%)
    • And worries that dressing like themselves or wearing their hair naturally or in the way they feel comfortable will result in discrimination (56%)

According to Nargis Choudhury, People Co-ordinator at Red Consultancy, a Soho-based public relations firm: “I regularly get asked by candidates what they should wear particularly by those from Black, Asian and ethnically diverse groups. It’s no use saying ‘smart casual’ which means different things to different people. We have had instances of people turning up in suits in a bid to look professional, but then felt too ‘corporate’ as they are interviewed by people dressed more casually. I direct people to our company Instagram page to show that we have, and we welcome a very broad range of looks.”

People with Afro Textured or curly hair face hair worry about discrimination

Once they’ve secured the job, workers continue to worry about discrimination based on their clothing and hair style choices. Those with Afro Textured or curly hair are less confident in wearing their natural style in the workplace – with more than 1 in 10 (14%) believing it will have a negative impact on their career.

Those with naturally straight hair broadly did not feel compelled to change their hair texture for interviews (86% said no), whilst a third of those with Afro Textured or curly hair (31%) feel compelled to change their hair texture and more than 1 in 10 of those with Afro Textured or curly hair felt they should cover their natural hair or wear a wig for interviews (15%).

Respondent case study:

According to one worker, 30 year old, Sloane Francis Grant from London: “I have definitely held back from switching up my hairstyles due to not wanting to attract attention. On the rare occasion that I did ‘debut’ a new hairstyle at work, I would get endless questions, and whilst never malicious, it could get exhausting answering the same questions such as “How long did that take? How long will it last? How much of it is your real hair? Wow you must have been so tired by the end!”

Work events are not inclusive

The research also highlighted a lack of inclusivity at formal work events with 18% of respondents saying that traditional ‘black tie’ events aren’t inclusive. More than one in ten (14%) had turned down invitations to formal work events because they didn’t have the right clothes, rising to one in five (20%) for Black employees. While almost a third (31%) from lower socio-economic groups admitted concerns about having the right clothes to wear.

Creative Access, who commissioned the study, provide career access, support and training for people from under-represented groups and help organisations build more inclusive cultures. The organisation’s mission is to make the creative industries reflect UK society.  

“As we enter the busy post-summer recruitment period, this research shows how important it is for employers to provide clear guidance to candidates on all aspects of the recruitment process, including what to wear. Navigating vague or confusing dress codes or no dress code at all is adding an extra layer of unnecessary anxiety and our research shows is particularly impacting those from under-represented groups,” says Bibi Hilton, CEO, Creative Access.

To help employees be more inclusive during the recruitment process, Creative Access has put together a guide for employers here.

Research was undertaken by Vitreous World in June 2023. 2,000 UK nationally representative survey & 142 people working in creative industries via Creative Access membership.