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Is it legal to enforce a ‘stereotypical’ dress code?

May 12, 2016

Stories of employee’s being forced to wear high heels at work are all over the news this week . A female agency worker turned up at work on her first day as a temporary receptionist for PWC in London, only to be told that her footwear was unsuitable because her shoes were flat. She was advised that the Company dress code was that all female receptionists were required to wear shoes with heels between 2 and 4 inches. Is this legal or fair?

Well as long as organisations have dress codes that are deemed to be ‘reasonable’ and employees are given sufficient time to acquire clothing that complies with the requirements of the code, employers are entitled to enforce such rules. And they may even be entitled to dismiss employees who are unable to comply, or simply refuse to. Employers can have dress codes that are set differently for men and women as long as there is an ‘equivalent level of smartness’ required in the same, or similar, roles.
Let’s be honest this is not a new phenomenon; Air Hostess’ for the likes of Virgin and BA, and even the lost airlines, are all given very strict dress codes. Including what hair and makeup is acceptable.

How do you apply a dress code?

If as an employer you need to set a dress code, you should be able to articulate why you want employees to dress in a certain way.

So for example, in the case of the receptionist, the employer required staff in that role to be the face of the Company, to be the first person customers and clients saw and to escort them to meeting rooms. So the employer claims they had a legitimate reason that they wanted these staff impeccably dressed. For them, flat shoes (for ladies) are simply not considered suitably smart. Since the media storm this week they have however reportedly done a U-turn on this.

The key to a successful dress code, if you need one, is to discuss it with staff who do the job. This ensures that they are involved and engaged, but also confirms that the dress code is practical as well as appropriate for the company’s image.

What about the impact to employee health?

There are also health concerns to consider in being asked to wear heels – many women happily teeter around in stilettos day in day out, and are happy to. But for others being expected to wear heels, in a role where they are standing and walking around for possibly up to 9 hours a day, is a big ask and could impact on the long term health of their feet.

In fact, the College of Podiatry has actually warned employers not to force women to wear heels at work due to the possibility of them causing bunions, back problems and sprained ankles amongst other things. Indeed, in the case of an employee who already has a pre-existing long term medical condition that means they can’t wear shoes with heels, not making a reasonable adjustment to allow them to wear flats may actually be disability discrimination. That’s before we even consider the personal injury claims that could be on the horizon.

So, when you’re reviewing your existing dress code or setting a new one, it’s wise to be mindful of the comfort as well as the smartness of your employees. If you absolutely want to enforce a requirement that differentiates between men and women, or could be contentious for some other reason, just ask yourself; is it absolutely necessary? Is it reasonable? What real impact would it have if the rule were relaxed?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting a certain standard or dress or requiring a uniform of some kind, but remember that employees need to be comfortable at work as well as looking well-groomed!