In December 2015, Nicola Thorp, a receptionist working on assignment at PwC was sent home after she refused to wear heels. Her agency’s dress code required women to wear two to four inch heels. Her experience generated a significant amount of publicity and she began a petition seeking a change in law which would make it illegal for women to be required to wear heels at work. Ms Thorp’s petition gained more than 150,000 signatures. As a result of this campaign, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Petitions Committee conducted a public inquiry and produced a report in January 2017. Their report and recommendations were based on the finding that requiring women to wear heels at work is harmful to their health and wellbeing. In response to the report, the Government published an official statement on 20th April 2017 maintaining that any recommendation for legislative change would be firmly rejected but that, given public concern, updated guidance regarding dress codes would be issued in summer 2017.
Following a one year delay, the promised guidance was finally issued and consists of only six pages. The guidance confirms that dress codes can be a legitimate part of an employer’s terms and conditions of employment and that dress policies for men and women do not have to be identical, but should be similar or equivalent. The guidance also advises employers that they should avoid gender specific prescriptive requirements such as any requirement for women to wear makeup, skirts, high heels as these requirements are likely to be unlawful unless a comparable requirement is put in place for men. The guidance also suggests that employers consult with employees and trade unions over any proposed dress code or changes to a current code to ensure it is acceptable to all parties before being implemented.
Whilst the main purpose of the guidance is to prevent sex discrimination and harassment, it also covers making reasonable adjustments to dress codes for disabled employees and permitting transgender employees to follow a dress code in a way which they feel matches their gender identity.
The guidance has received severe criticism from many stating that it fails to fully address the recommendations set out in the 2017 report, fails to impose stricter penalties on employers that enforce discriminatory dress codes and is like a “Janet and John” guide to dress codes. However, the guidance does clarify the issue raised in Ms Thorp’s case and confirms flat shoes should be allowed in the workplace, regardless of the employee’s gender.
Updated guidance from ACAS is expected on this issue (their current guidance can be found here).
If you have concerns about your dress code and need assistance in reviewing this, get in touch with our team of employment lawyers on01412211919 or fill out our online enquiry form.