The experience of one young woman sent home from the workplace for not wearing heels led to country-wide debate.
The House of Commons recently discussed an e-petition relating to dress codes and high heels in the workplace. The e-petition, launched by Nicola Thorp, was signed by over 152,000 people, with many calling on the government to review the law and, if necessary, push for changes to it.
Ms Thorp’s experience has been well publicised across national media and has generated mass commentary and opinion. Upon arriving for her first day of work as a receptionist at a large financial firm in the City, wearing smart flat shoes, Nicola Thorp was informed by the agency which employed her that she needed to buy shoes with a heel between 2-4 inches high or go home without pay. She declined to buy the shoes and was sent home without pay.
Whilst the government has rejected the call for a legislative amendment to make it specifically illegal for employers to require women to wear high heels to work, it does not automatically follow, as many of the media headlines have stated, that employers can force women to wear high heels to work. What the government actually stated is that it believes the current discrimination law is “adequate” to deal with discriminatory dress codes. Indeed, it is already unlawful to require an employee to wear high heels at work. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Requiring a woman to wear high heels could be direct sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if it means that she is treated less favourably than a man. The high heels requirement may also be indirectly discriminatory if a woman can show that it puts women in general, and her in particular, at a disadvantage compared to men. For employers trying to rely on the idea that male staff are required to dress to an equivalent level of smartness doesn’t work as high-heels are almost uniquely worn by women.
Unlike direct discrimination, indirect discrimination can be justified if it is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. It is, however, difficult to see how an employer could objectively justify the requirement for high heels if it is based on purely aesthetic grounds.
The real issue is that although there is protection from discrimination and such detrimental dress codes covered by the Equality Act 2010, it is difficult for women to utilise and apply the law and there are areas of uncertainty for employees as well as a general lack of awareness by employers. To make the law clearer to employers and raise awareness among employees, the government will be producing new guidance on workplace dress codes. Hopefully the forthcoming guidance on the issue may help clarify the finer details of what employers can, and can’t, get away with in employee dress codes.
Any dress code should not be stricter or cause any disadvantage to one gender over another. Employers should aim to apply a fair and equal approach to all employees to allow a corporate and smart image whilst ensuring that they do not discriminate against anyone due to a protected characteristic.