A report High heels and workplace dress codes, comes after the well-publicised experiences of a London receptionist last year.
Nicola Thorp was sent home from work without pay for not wearing high heels. She then launched a parliamentary petition which received over 150,000 signatures.This led to a joint report by the Parliamentary Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee During their research, the MPs heard from a number of women about their own similar experiences. Some had to unbutton blouses and wear shorter skirts.
System favours employers but fails employees
Ms Thorp’s employers sent her home after she refused to wear heels between two and four inches high. These were the dress code rules of her employment agency, Portico. Ms Thorp said wearing heels all day wasn’t good for her feet. She added that there wasn’t a dress code for male colleagues. Ms Thorp believes the “the current system favours the employer, and is failing employees.”
The Portico dress code has since been changed, but it originally included:
• Reapplication of make-up
• Specific thickness of hosiery
• No roots on dyed hair
• Specific colours of nail varnish
The report recommends a publicity campaign to ensure employers know their legal obligations, and also, crucially, that workers know their rights and how to complain effectively. The overall recommendation is to enforce the existing law more vigorously, if necessary with employment tribunals given powers to issue increased penalties.
High heels policy
Dress codes are not illegal, but could constitute sex discrimination. if a policy treats women less favourably than men.
A high heels policy could indirectly discriminate against women, provided the complainant can show that the policy puts her at a disadvantage. Given the health issues associated with wearing high heels, this argument has merit. The employer would have to defend its dress policy and demonstrate that it has a genuine business interest for the policy. But in this instance, it could be argued that smart, flat shoes would be just as appropriate.
Acceptable dress code requests
Employers must be able to show that their dress code is proportionate, and that its purpose is to achieve a particular business aim. For example, a policy on hair style could not be enforced if it is only concerned with appearances, but could be enforceable if health and safety reasons require staff to tie their hair back.