Dress codes are often used in the workplace and there are many reasons why an employer may have such a code. For example in some firms employees may be required to adhere to some form of corporate wear to communicate a certain image. Or indeed a code may exist for purely health and safety reasons with perhaps health care workers not being allowed to wear jewellery around patients or certain clothing being prohibited in factories where staff are operating machinery.
A recent case, however, has highlighted potential issues with dress code policies. A 27 year old woman working for a City firm in London was sent home for apparently refusing to wear high heels. Nicola Thorp arrived at an accountancy firm wearing flat shoes but was told she must change out of her flat shoes to wear shoes with a 2-4 inch heel. She refused, complaining that male colleagues were not required to wear high heeled shoes and she was sent home without pay. Her employers defended their dress code.
There is no specific law on dress codes at work and Ms Thorp, feeling so strongly about the position she found herself in, set up a Petition to the Government, demanding “women have the option to wear flat shoes at work if they wish” and claiming “Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.” At the moment the Petition has picked up more than 20,000 signatures meaning the Government must give a comment. If it gets more than 100,000 signatures there is a possibility that MPs could debate the issue in Parliament.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of a protected characteristic, which include age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
To help employers ACAS has issued the following guidelines:
- Employers must avoid unlawful discrimination in any dress code policy.
- Employers may have health and safety reasons for having certain standards.
- Dress codes must apply to men and women equally, although they may have different requirements.
- Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.
As ACAS has further stated “a dress code should always be related to the job and be reasonable in nature.”
So did Ms Thorp suffer discrimination? UK employers can dismiss staff who fail to live up to “reasonable dress code demands” but according to Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC a dress code including high heels “reeks of sexism.” “High heels should be a choice, not a requirement.”
There are of course also health concerns. Tony Redmond a biomechanics expert at Leeds University warned that “ From the point of view of the foot, high heels are a disaster.” He alerts us to the fact that wearing high heels may cause some forms of arthritis, problems with knee joints and put people with weak lower backs at risk of slipped vertebrae. Emma Supple from the College of Podiatry has advised employers not to make women wear high heels at work because they “cause bunions, back problems, ankle sprains and tight calves.” As she says “All companies should be mindful of both the comfort as well as the smartness of their employees. These are not incompatible.”
In this case no claim has been put to an Employment Tribunal and the firm at the centre of the row has said it has now changed its policy allowing women to wear flat shoes depending on their preference. In a statement,Simon Pratt the Managing Director said “We are totally committed to being an inclusive and equal opportunities employer, actively embracing diversity and inclusion within our policies and procedures.”
But what would happen if a similar case were to be brought before a Tribunal? The employer would have to succeed on two points- that there was an objective reason for women to wear high heels, such as better job performance and they would have to justify why women had to wear high heels and why there was no similar requirement for men. I think this would be very difficult to prove.