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New dress code guidelines expected – and it allows you to demand females wear high heels

If a member of staff fails to live up to your dress code expectations, you're legally entitled to dismiss him/her. Sometimes, however, it's tricky to pinpoint if your demands are reasonable. If not, you could find yourself in a court battle, as was the case when Nicola Thorp was fired for refusing to wear high heels.
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Her case is by now a well-known one, in which she argued against the fact that employers could set up different dress codes for men and women if they were deemed of equivalent level. But why, she queried, weren’t some nice flats a viable footwear option? Were high heels really necessary?

“I said ‘if you can give me a reason as to why wearing flats would impair me to do my job, then fair enough‘, but they couldn’t,” she told BBC Radio London. “I was expected to do a nine-hour shift on my feet escorting clients to meeting rooms.”

The event spurred her to file a petition, asking for it to be made illegal for companies to ask women to wear high heels. It was signed by more than152,400 people, forcing MPs to debate about current workplace dress codes in March 2017.

At the time, Labour’s Gill Furniss claimed a high heels policy saw her daughter land a fracture “commonly affiliated with sports injuries. Quite literally adding insult to injury, she was denied compensation or sick pay as she wasn’t on the payroll for long enough. Needless to say, she did not return to this type of work, but not everyone has that choice.”

Furniss wasn’t the only MP to give voice on the matter. Labour MP Helen Jones said: “What we found shocked us. We found attitudes that belonged more in the 1850s than in the 21st century.

“Threatened with dismissal if they complained, they were forced to bear pain all day, or to wear clothing that was totally unsuitable for the tasks that they were asked to perform, or to dress in a way that they felt sexualised their appearance and was demeaning.”

The government was convinced off the back of the debate, that it needed to make the law around dress codes clearer to employers and raise awareness among employees. It has this recently been announced that new guidelines will be issued this summer. 

However, the petition to make it illegal for bosses to demand high heels be worn, did not come to pass. The government stressed that current laws were already “adequate” enough when it came to gender-based discrimination.

Having heard the news, Thorp issued a statement to the Press Association saying: “It’s a shame they won’t change legislation. I do think it is a little bit of a cop-out. As it stands, the Equalities Act states an employer has the right to distinguish between a male and female dress code as long as they are not deemed to be treating one sex more or less favourably.

“Unfortunately, because of intrinsic sexism and the way in which business works in the UK, when employers are allowed the freedom to decide what is fair and unfair women tend to lose out.”

Image: Shutterstock

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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