Headshots of staff at Elas for Business Week.

Pictured is.... Emma O'Leary

No excuse for discriminatory practices in the workplace

In this day and age there is no excuse for discriminatory practices in the workplace. With so much focus on gender equality it is absurd that women still have to fight for the right to dress as they wish against the male view of how they believe a woman should dress.

A parliamentary investigation into work place dress codes has exposed widespread discrimination against women and ‘dodgy 1970’s workplace diktats’. More than 152,000 people signed a petition started by receptionist Nicola Thorp after she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. The subsequent investigation heard comments from women nationwide who had experienced dress code discrimination which clearly show that employers are not considering the work their employees carry out in their daily duties when requiring them to wear high heels. The majority of comments came from women working in the retail, hospitality, airline or corporate industries; within the retail industry, luxury department stores, shoe chains and jewellers were those most regularly mentioned.

While there is nothing wrong with wanting to maintain a professional image in the workplace, employers should look at whether or not they are fair and equal to all employees as well as whether they are putting employees at risk. Research has highlighted the risks of long-term musculoskeletal damage as a result of wearing high heels. Taking into account employers’ duty of care to protect their employees’ health in the workplace, I would suggest that they consider reviewing dress codes and determining whether the requirement to wear high heels is necessary.

The Equality Act (and Sex Discrimination Act before that) ensures that women are protected from being treated less favourably on the grounds of their sex. Setting a specific dress code for women only is of course less favourable treatment and women are entitled to complain about it. When we hear testimony such as that posted on the parliamentary forum by the shoe shop assistant who said her employer “requires us to wear high heeled pointy shoes of their choice; we are not allowed to wear alternative flat heeled shoes that are available within the range….none of the male staff within the company are forced to wear heels,” it is obvious that this is clear discrimination. There is no reason female employees would not be able to perform the same role wearing flat heeled shoes, as the male employees do.

Of course first impressions are important and we understand that companies want to portray a certain image. In a business environment it can be argued that high heels add to a professional appearance however the same could be achieved with formal flat shoes. A company needs to look at why they want women to wear skirts or heels. If it’s because they feel women are better to look at then stop, however, if it’s for professional/smarter appearance then this can be fine if the person is working in a client facing role. The important thing is that the policy is reasonable and needs to be applied equally to men who are employed in a similar role. While you would never ask a man to wear high heels you could require them to wear a tie or have a neatly trimmed beard rather than stubble, yet it would be inappropriate to ask a woman in the role if she had shaved her legs.

It’s clear that there is still a sexist attitude in some circles when it comes to dress codes. President Donald Trump caused an outcry recently when he told female staff in his administration that they need to always ‘dress like women’ when at work. While there is nothing wrong with requiring employees to be smartly dressed, there cannot be separate rules for men and women and sexist attitudes such as this belong firmly in the past.

There are three steps every company should consider when looking at a dress code policy:

Step 1 – What are you trying to achieve? Are you asking women to dress a certain way because it makes them look better/sexier in your mind or is it to enhance a professional image in a client facing role?

Step 2 – Is what you are doing proportionate to what you are trying to achieve or are you going over the top?

Step 3 – Dress code should be balanced with other considerations such as health and safety, not just in the workplace but also for the person wearing the item of clothing. You wouldn’t expect someone to wear a tie around fast moving dangerous machines. Equally, forcing someone with a disability to wear high heels might exasperate conditions surrounding their disability.

By Emma O’Leary, LLB

Emma has been a Solicitor for 9 years.  She is a consultant for ELAS with vast employment law expertise specialising in unfair dismissal and discrimination and has conducted numerous tribunal hearings for small business to large enterprises.  In her law firm, Essential Solicitors LLP, she advises SMEs on commercial and corporate matters as well as undertaking private client work.