Bringing Dress Code Policies To Heel

There has been much media coverage over the last week of ‘heelgate’. The incident involved Nicola Thorp, a receptionist working at PwC through an agency, Portico, who reported for work in flats and was told to either go and buy a pair of heels or go home.

Most employers have dress codes but is it reasonable to go to this far? In my view (which is only partly motivated by a complete aversion to heels), no. Of course employers are entitled to set dress codes for their employees and staff, and of course it is reasonable to ask staff to look professional. However, the rules in this case required female staff to wear heels over a full working shift, which, as anyone who has done it will know, is not comfortable. There does not appear to have been an equivalent policy for men.

Portico is not alone in placing strict dress code policies on its staff. I have heard of companies who require female staff to wear specific make up and present their hair in certain styles. The disadvantages to female staff are not just discomfort or inconvenience: over a year, a woman required to wear specific make up would incur far more expense than a male colleague who was just required to dress smartly.

Whilst, ironically, I imagine that this publicity has not done wonders for Portico’s image, there are also employment law implications. The Equality Act prevents employers treating their staff less favourably because of their gender. The kinds of dress codes that I identify above do just that. If an employer’s specifications as to how their staff should appear smart and professionally turned out create disadvantages (whether financial or otherwise) for a particular gender, there is an argument that they constitute less favourable treatment and are therefore discriminatory.

Correcting the paper policy is relatively easy to fix but paper policy or not, there will be a dress code double standard in a lot of companies. Many employers may even subconsciously form negative perceptions of female employees because they do not conform to standards of dress that their male counterparts are not required to adhere to, particularly in more conservative professions. That is the real challenge for employers who want to create a fair dress code.

Rolleen McDonnell is a solicitor at leading senior executive employment law firm BDBF.