We’ve heard this week how a 27-year-old corporate receptionist was sent home, without pay, after refusing to wear high heels at work. On her first day on the job, Nicola Thorp wore flat shoes. However, Portico, the agency that runs the reception at the London office, gave Miss Thorp an ultimatum that she either go out and buy 2 to 4-inch high heels or go home.  Miss Thorp’s role was not desk-based and involved her being on her feet, for example, escorting clients to meeting rooms during her 9-hour shift.

She went home and has since set up a petition demanding that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, claiming the current law as “outdated and sexist”, a sentiment backed up by the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. Simon Pratt, MD at Portico, said that Miss Thorp arrived at work with “inappropriate footwear” and knew the requirements having signed the guidelines beforehand.

It’s a topic that has a history of past discussions. In 2009 the TUC put forward a motion that women shouldn’t be forced to wear high heels, instead, it should be an employee’s choice as to what footwear they wore.

In 2015 Israeli airline, El Al, made it a requirement that all female cabin crew had to wear high heels until all passengers on the plane were seated.

What does the law say in the UK?

Whether a dress code is needed is likely to depend on the nature of an employer’s business. In some industries, dress codes are required for health and safety reasons, or there is a requirement to wear a uniform specific to the nature of the work carried out by the individual.

Employers can dismiss employees who fail to abide by their dress codes, as long as they have been given appropriate warnings to step up to the level required.

When looking to formulate and/or implement a dress code, any employer should keep potential issues of discrimination at the forefront of their mind. Regard should be had to religious sensitivities, and also to the principle that, while it is permissible to have different rules for men and women, the rules should not be more stringent for one group than another, as in this case. For example, in a case such as this, you have to be able to show that not only were the sexes treated differently, but that the treatment accorded to one was less favourable than the treatment afforded to the other.

Skirt or trousers?

A case along the same lines considered whether an employer was wrong for requiring female employees to wear a skirt and not trousers at work. In this case, the Court of Appeal held that the imposition of this dress code was not discriminatory as it was introduced for the purposes of requiring conventional appearances for male and female employees, and applied even-handedly, which did not amount to sex discrimination.

Here, although the dress code meant that the particular detailed rules applicable to men and women employees were different, their overall effect was broadly the same, that is, to ensure conventionality in appearance. It could not be said that the code treated one sex less favourably than another since both sexes were required to dress in a conventional way.

In respect of high heels, you would question why there is a requirement for the same and whether, for example, flat shoes would portray the equivalent level of smartness, to which I expect the answer would be ‘yes’. Furthermore, there may also be certain health and safety concerns to wearing heels.

Miss Thorp questioned why a male colleague was allowed to wear flat shoes, but she wasn’t and was roundly laughed at being told that “men aren’t used to wearing high heels”. Despite the guidelines being “common practice in the service sector” according to the Portico MD, the company have now amended their policy, despite saying that the guidelines were “common practice within the service sector”.

If you feel like you have been discriminated against at work because of your sex, call us on 0161 930 5151 to discuss your case. You can also email enquiries@gorvins.com and we will be in touch with you shortly.

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