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Dress for Success

In May actress and temporary receptionist Nicola Thorp refused to wear heels for her job at PwC. Ms Thorp arrived at her day job as a receptionist in flat black shoes. Before she was able to start her day she was told that if she didn’t get a pair of heels she would be sent home unpaid. She was reminded of the company’s dress code policy which required females to wear a “two in to four-inch heel’’ and that she had also signed it.

Ms Thorp was unhappy about being required to wear heels, deeming it to be sexist and took to social media to air her views. There was a huge expression of sympathy. Among other things the point was made that heels don’t have an impact on the quality of work done. Someone said “here I am running my business wearing flip flops” or words to that effect. That’s perfectly true. When I was a one woman band and worked from home I worked wearing unbelievably scruffy clothes. It didn’t matter because no one was there during the day but the cat. But when I went to see a client it was a different matter and I dressed in a suit or tailored separates. And that’s because first impressions do count. Unless you’re very well known in which case you can get away with dressing down (think Richard Branson),you have to establish your authority – and that means dressing appropriately for the industry.

Since the furore was unleashed, Portico, the company who arranged Ms Thorp’s work, have updated their policy to allow female colleagues to wear plain flat or plain court shoes.

While Ms Thorp may not have been delighted with the request, it is legal for an organisation to ask female employees to wear heels if it constitutes part of a reasonable dress code. For example, a reasonable dress code might require females to wear a sensible ‘two to three-inch’ heel - not six- inch skyscrapers (unless perhaps they are models, performers or actresses). I’m not sure how - or indeed whether - Ms Thorp will raise the matter if she is given a role that requires a bit of teetering around on high heels! No doubt time will tell.

Ms Thorp’s case has produced diverging opinions. Some say it’s a women’s right issue and others have said asking her to wear a two to four-inch heel is a reasonable request as her job role requires her to look ‘smart and presentable’.

Ms Thorp started a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work. The petition has reached over the 140,000, surpassing the 100,000 needed to trigger a response from the government. It has also sparked an inquiry by the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities committee. They have said they will investigate the issue and look at what could be done to make the law better.

Employers should take into account that any dress code should be non-discriminatory and should apply to both men and women equally. It does not work on an item-by-item comparison.

My team all love wearing smart heels (and so do I!) and my rules relate to not over-doing it; we max out at three inches. I don’t want them to fall off their heels à la Naomi Campbell or down the stairs. Be conscious of both comfort and safety as well as the appearance of their employees. Dress codes are surprisingly emotive so make sure you raise any such requirements at the recruitment stage and set out the policy in either the terms and conditions of employment or employee handbook. Consult with the team about the policy and properly consider their feedback. That way you’re likely to get a dress code that works for your business and with which everyone’s happy.

We deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of HR. If you need help resolving problems with dress codes or any other HR issues, give us a call on 01908 262628.

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