High heels in the workplace and office dress code guidance

Many businesses impose at least some level of control over what workers wear. Sometimes this is a uniform

Dress codes and what is and is not acceptable office attire have been rumbling away as issues for many years; however, the recent controversy over a temporary worker sent home without pay for refusing to wear the high heels that constituted part of her uniform has reignited matters and it is now an excellent time for employers to look in detail at their dress codes and what they hope to achieve from them.

Many businesses impose at least some level of control over what workers wear. Sometimes this is a uniform, where each item or type of clothing is specified. More typically, in professional business environments, this means a dress code, where clothing must conform to certain prescribed standards.

The reasons behind uniforms and dress codes tend to relate to the wish to convey a professional image, to ensure the easy recognition of staff by clients, or to address health and safety concerns. Although not always popular with staff, dress codes and uniforms are not an area that has attracted much in the way of legislation. Provided they comply with discrimination and equality laws, employers are largely free to do as they wish when deciding what staff should wear to work.

The case of the temporary worker sent home for her refusal to wear high-heeled shoes caused controversy precisely because it appeared to breach anti-discrimination provisions. Although it is acceptable to require men and women to wear different clothes, such as ties for men and ‘business dress’ for women, both genders must be held to the same standards of dress. An employer that gets this wrong enters a discrimination minefield.

The employer that insisted its female workers wore high heels but made no similar demand of males risked a direct sex discrimination claim. Although no claim was brought, a potential claimant might succeed if she could show that wearing high heels had caused her physical pain or harm.

It may be that parliament eventually legislates on the issue of high heels and makes it unlawful for employers to require any of their staff to wear such items; however, the principle the case highlights is sound. Any employer imposing any sort of dress code needs to be confident they know why they are doing so.

It will often be a good idea to open a dialogue with employees to discuss any proposed dress code or changes to an existing one. Not only should this help to equalise staff and employer expectations but also it can flag potential issues surrounding religious attire. Unless properly thought out and capable of justifying a genuine safety or business requirement, anything that contravenes religious dress codes risks an indirect discrimination claim.

Finally, any agreed policy must be communicated clearly to staff and should leave them in no doubt as to the expected standards. They are then more likely to adhere to the code; if they do not, the policy puts the employer in a stronger position when it comes to taking disciplinary action.

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