May 3, 2017

If the Shoe Fits… Reviewing Updates to Dress Codes

It’s been a whole year since we brought you the story of Nicola Thorp, the receptionist on a temporary contract whose refusal to change her flat work shoes for high heels caused a furore.

In this update, we look at the results of that incident and provide you with the HR guidance on office dress code.

When a fairytale becomes a nightmare

In a reversal of the Cinderella story, Ms Thorp was sent home without pay. Enraged at what she branded blatant sexism, she set up a petition to Parliament which called out what she believed to be outdated dress codes for female workers:

It’s still legal in the UK for a company to require female members of staff to wear high heels at work against their will. Dress code laws should be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish. Current formal work dress codes are out-dated and sexist.

The dress code applicable to Ms Thorp included:

  • Regularly maintained hair colour (if individual colours hair) with no visible roots
  • No flower accessories
  • Makeup at all times (unless for medical reasons) with a minimum of light blusher, lipstick or tinted gloss, mascara eye shadow, light foundation/powder

In terms of footwear the dress code specifies: “heels of between two and four inches”.

Her petition to change the law ignited public outrage, generating over 150,000 signatures and forcing a hurried debate in the Commons Select Committee.

In just one week, their on-line forum attracted over 730 personal testimonies.

Dress codes styled to suit all

The significant publicity surrounding Ms Thorp and her petition brought into sharp focus potential discrimination in workplace dress codes. ACAS hurriedly produced the following interim advice:

Dress codes should always have regard to four key considerations:

  • They must avoid unlawful discrimination
  • They must apply to men and women equally although different requirements may apply to each sex
  • Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled people
  • Health and safety reasons may well underpin certain standards

A dress code, they suggested, can often be used to ensure workers are safe and dressed appropriately, however it should relate to the job and be reasonable in nature.

Employers may legitimately apply standards of dress and appearance for their organisation but they should be non-discriminatory and apply to both men and women.

Particularly in terms of high heels, ACAS advised employers to be cautious about any dress code that leads to a disadvantage for one gender over the other. They cited (unspecified) reports contending physical pain and harm can arise from wearing high heels which, ACAS noted, could lead to the possibility of a successful claim on grounds of sex.

No swift change on dress code legislation from Government

The Government, however, recently spurned its own Parliamentary Select Committee’s call for stronger laws by declaring that existing legislation remains adequate.

It’s instead proposing additional guidance on controversial elements, such as footwear, hair styles, skirt length, hosiery, make-up, low fronted or unbuttoned tops, and manicures.

Publication is due “in the summer” but there will be inevitable slippage due to the general election.

Does your dress code scrub up alright?

There’s always been a legal entitlement for an employer to differentiate between male and female staff in their dress code. However, it’s difficult to see how the criteria Nicola Thorp encountered apply to men and women equally.

If you operate a dress code, was it produced for you by an employment law advisor (like Moorepay) or is it your own version? If it’s your own, have an expert audit your dress and appearance provisions to check for inadvertent discrimination.

Moorepay versions already take specific account of current ACAS views including equalities-considerate provisions, sex and religious discrimination and health & safety justification.

But either way your wording should recognise your right to expect your staff to project an acceptable, professional image which assists you to achieve your legitimate business aims, and help you to identify apparel that may be inappropriate and how to deal with it.

We will be reviewing dress and appearance codes when the new government guidance finally emerges and will provide an update on our blog.

If you need any help with your own staff policies on uniform, dress code or any other workplace issues, call our experts on 0845 184 4615 or contact the team.

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About the author

Mike Fitzsimmons

Mike is a Senior HR Consultant within the Moorepay Policy Team. He is responsible for the developing of employment documentation and is an Employment law advisor. With over 30 years of senior management and HR experience, Mike has managed teams of between 30 and 100 employees and is familiar with all the issues that employing people brings. He has also served as a non-executive director on the Boards of several social enterprises and undertook a five year tour of duty as Executive Chair of a £30+ million annual turnover Government agency.