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Government says shoo to high heel campaign

Nicola Thorp was employed as a temporary receptionist by corporate finance company, PwC in December 2016. PwC outsources its front of house and reception services to a third party supplier, Portico. Portico set the uniform rules for reception staff. Arriving on her first day wearing flat shoes, Ms Thorp claims that she was told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel” and that she must go out and buy a pair. When Ms Thorp refused and made claims that the demand was discriminatory (as her male colleagues would not be asked to do the same) she was sent home without pay.

Ms Thorp set up a petition calling for the law to be changed so that women could not be told to wear high heels; this received over 152,000 signatures and was debated in parliament this March.

The House of Commons Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee carried out a joint inquiry and concluded that being required to wear high heels is damaging to female workers’ health and wellbeing. Further, they reported that certain other dress code requirements make some female workers feel uncomfortable and sexualised by their employer.

The report went on to make a number of recommendations to the Government, including:

  • amendments to the Equality Act 2010 to make it harder for employers to enforce discriminatory dress codes;
  • raising awareness for workers on how to complain and bring claims;
  • issuing detailed guidance for employers on dress codes;
  • introducing harsher financial penalties for employers flouting the Equality Act 2010 in relation to dress codes, including a requirement that a guilty employer makes a payment to every worker in their organisation subjected to a discriminatory dress code.

After the investigation, the Equalities Office issued a formal response on 20 April 2017. It rejected Ms Thorp’s petition and the majority of the recommendations of the inquiry, stating that existing legislation was adequate in dealing with sex discrimination in the workplace. However, it did appreciate that the petition and inquiry had shed light on potential discriminatory dress codes becoming more commonplace and employers’ lack of awareness about what they can and can’t require. The Equalities Office will therefore issue detailed guidance on dress codes in the workplace this summer to increase awareness and look at how to raise awareness for workers on how to complain/claim.

Comment

There are many reasons why employers stipulate dress codes, whether it is to ensure that all workers are dressed appropriately for health and safety reasons or to communicate a corporate image through the use of a uniform or ‘smart business attire’. If employers have a dress code they must ensure that it directly relates to the job and that it is reasonable.

Any dress code must not be discriminatory and should apply to both men and women equally. Employers may set out different standards for men and women as long as they are of an equivalent level i.e. a requirement for a woman to wear a ‘business dress’ and a man to ‘wear a tie’. Employers should be cautious when operating a dress code in this way to avoid one gender being put at a disadvantage unless the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Employers also need to avoid treating any specific worker less favourably because of their gender.  Without a legitimate aim and justification, a dress code requiring a female worker to wear high heels is likely to be discriminatory.

When implementing or updating a dress code, employers must consider their reasons for having a code and ensure that they are proportionate. Employers should always be mindful of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. In particular, recent cases have focussed upon dress codes that discriminate against workers who dress in a certain way for e.g. religious reasons and the requirement to make reasonable adjustments if a dress code places disabled people at a substantial disadvantage.

If you have any queries relating to sex discrimination or dress codes, please contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

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