Specialising in HR, we’re often asked by our clients to help across a number of HR related areas. Many of these questions are relevant for all businesses and industries across the UK, so to help you, we’ve created our Q&A section to help businesses understand HR and how they can tackle any problems that may arise.
My business involves dealing with the public and I wonder if I can insist that women who work in my organisation are smart, wear make-up and high heels?
You will have heard of Nicola Thorp, a receptionist at PwC, who was sent home without pay for not wearing high heels. She launched a petition last year that received more than 150,000 signatures and triggered an inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee. The report from the committee in January 2017 concluded that current laws to prevent discrimination are not “fully effective” and claims that women are still being forced to wear high heels, make-up and revealing clothes by some employers. It called upon the Government to institute fines against such employers.
You will be relieved to know that it is not necessarily discriminatory under the current legislation (the Equalities Act 2010) for an employer to require employees to dress appropriately and professionally for the workplace. Employers are permitted to regulate an employee’s appearance, provided they do not discriminate: any dress code must have an equivalent level of smartness between men and women. Standards can be different, for example, a policy may state “business dress” for women but may state for men “must wear a tie”.
You can certainly emphasise in your dress code that all staff should be smart when meeting the public but a requirement in a dress code that women must wear high heels and a revealing outfit, and regularly touch up their make-up could be sex discrimination. It is hard to see what could be a similar requirement for men — the need to wear highly polished shoes and a tie would not appear to be equivalent.
If a woman, in response to the employer’s requirement that she must wear high heels at work, wished to bring a claim for direct discrimination under the Equalities Act 2010 she would have to show that she had suffered some detriment. Health and safety could be of assistance to her in this issue. In its written evidence to the Parliamentary committees, the College of Podiatry said that women who wore high heels for long periods of time were at a much greater risk of disabling pathologies of the foot over a long period of time. This is a clear link between women who wear ill-fitting footwear and disabling pain — putting them at a disadvantage.
So, you are taking a legal risk in insisting that women wear high heels to work. If the woman was dismissed for not following the dress code, she could also have a claim of unfair dismissal.
Best practice for you is to proceed with caution and involve your staff in the production and communication of the dress code. Consulting with employees over any proposed dress code may ensure that the code is acceptable to both the organisation and employees. Once agreed it should be communicated to all employees. If employees do not comply with the standards it may result in a disciplinary hearing.
The Parliamentary committees claimed that the Equalities Act 2010 is not adequately protecting workers from such demands by employers. However, the PM is not likely to undertake such amendments when she has Brexit on her mind.