May 12, 2016

Do dress codes impact gender equality at work?

Heels in the workplace are under the spotlight this week. All because of the story about a 27-year old woman working for a City company in London who refused to swap her flat shoes for high heels. Nicola Thorpe turned up for her first day as a receptionist at the accountancy firm PwC and was told that unless she went out and bought heels that were between two and four inches high, then she would have to go home without being paid. When Thorpe asked if a man would be expected to do the same job in heels, she said she was just laughed at and was then sent home.

After the showdown, Thorpe went public with the story and started a petition, demanding that “women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work”. She intends to take the petition to the government. At last count, the petition had more than 50,000 signatures, the number of signatures required to guarantee a government response.

The latest development in the heels saga is that Portico, the company employing Thorpe, has now changed its dress code policy. It has said that “with immediate effect all our female colleagues can wear plain flat shoes”. Thorpe had signed Portico’s “appearance guidelines” but those guidelines are now under review.

It is certainly not the first time that controversy over women having to wear high heels has hit the headlines. The Israeli airliner EI AI came in for a lot of criticism last year when it issued a new policy requiring all female flight attendants to wear high heels until all customers had boarded its aircraft and were seated.

Back in 2009, delegates at a TUC conference backed a motion calling on employers to conduct risk assessments on women wearing high heels in the workplace. The motion was tabled by the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, saying that women have the right to wear sensible shoes and should not have to suffer debilitating foot problems, knee and back pain incurred by wearing high heels. The Society claims that lower limb injuries cost organisations two million working days each year.

Other unions said women should have the choice. In many organisations, however, women do not have a choice. Employers are by and large able to dictate dress code. Most organisations have dress codes that they expect employees to adhere to and some organisations expect employees in a public-facing role to dress in a particular way that they think befits the organisation and promotes a certain image.

HR cannot take a back seat here. There is obviously the potential for discrimination claims, based on dress code policies. These claims could be related to sex, gender, religion or race so consider the legal aspect of your dress code.

It is important that HR has or develops a coherent, clear policy on company dress code. What is considered acceptable and what is not? Heels are not the only potential areas of conflict – tattoos can also be controversial, for example. Nor do dress codes only apply to women. Is a man expected to wear a tie or not?

Whatever the code is, it needs to be communicated clearly to employees, particularly new hires. It should be gender neutral and be mindful of different cultures and faiths.

Also, consider the potential reputational damage if you force employees to dress in a way that some deem unacceptable – such as 4inch heels. Modern day employees have different expectations of what they wear to work and some, such as Thorpe, won’t tolerate being told to suffer discomfort in order to toe the party line.