What does the high heels row mean for your business?


Date: 7 June 2016

What does the high heels row mean for your business?The media storm over the agency worker who was sent home for refusing to wear high heels has highlighted issues with the current discrimination laws.

Nicola Thorp, a 27 year-old receptionist, hit the news headlines recently when she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. But is this legal?

Thorp was employed by PricewaterhouseCoopers' outsourced reception firm Portico. Upon arriving at work, wearing smart flat shoes, her supervisor informed her that she would need to go and buy heels that were between two and four inches high or else she would be sent home without pay. When she refused, Portico sent her home.

Thorp had signed up to Portico's appearance guidelines before accepting the role but employers need to be mindful that workers can bring cases if the dress code falls foul of sexual discrimination legislation.

Portico has since changed its uniform guidelines with immediate effect. The new dress code policy for the company allows all women to "wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer". However, this does not change the fact that the law in relation to dress codes, as it currently stands, is open to question and potential abuse by employers.

Thorp has set up a petition asking the Government to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. It has attracted more than 141,000 signatures. As a result, Parliament will consider this for debate.

What is the current legal position?

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) has made it clear that dress codes are lawful, provided they are not discriminatory.

In Thorp's case, the issue is that it is still legal for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. In addition, employers can also send staff home if they fail to live up to "reasonable dress code" requirements, as long as they have been given enough time to buy the right shoes and clothes.

It can be argued therefore that dress code laws as currently drafted are potentially sexist and may therefore need to be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they so wish. Wearing flat shoes at work would enable a woman to carry out her job more efficiently, particularly, as in Thorp's case, if a nine-hour shift is expected, requiring her to be on her feet all day.

Gender equality

Gender-specific dress codes are lawful in the UK, as long as they do not treat one or other of the sexes less favourably and there is an "equivalent level of smartness".

If it can be established that members of one sex are being treated less favourably than members of the opposite sex, the "but for" test comes into play (Smith v Safeway). But for the fact that Ms Thorp was a woman, would she have been required to wear high heels?

The Tribunal said no to a similar question posed in the case of Safeway. The case concerned a male staff member who was required to wear a collar and tie. The EAT found that the Tribunal's decision was flawed and that the Tribunal had misapplied the "but for" test. The test only becomes relevant once it has been established that members of one sex have been treated less favourably than members of the other sex. In the case of Safeway, the Tribunal had only asked itself whether “but for the fact that T was a man, would he have been required to wear a collar and tie?”. The first limb of the test had not been satisfied.

Advice to employers

The correct approach is to consider whether the level of smartness required could only be achieved for women by requiring them to wear high heels. If it could be achieved by other means then the lack of flexibility shown in the approach taken towards women may suggest less favourable treatment. Whilst dress codes are lawful, employers with similar dress codes therefore may wish to consider whether the requirement for women to wear high heels is actually necessary to achieve the level of smartness required.

Provided that you, as the employer, adopt an even-handed approach, the fact that members of one sex are required to wear clothing of a particular kind, but members of the other are not, will not necessarily mean that members of one sex are treated less favourably than members of the other. It will depend on the overall context of the relevant dress code.

Acas guidance

Acas provides assistance to both employers and employees. The key points made by Acas are:

  • 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 both men and women equally, although they may have different requirements;
  • reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people when dress codes are in place.

Companies have a large measure of discretion in controlling their company's image, including the appearance of staff, especially those who have contact with customers. Now's the time to review your dress code policy and ensure that it does not fall foul of discrimination or other employment laws.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Spain, iLaw.

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