High Heels and Employer Dress Policy Discrimination

In December 2015, Nicola Thorp arrived for work at PwC’s office in London, to begin work as a receptionist. Responsibility for the front desk and reception area was outsourced to a provider called Portico, who had a contentious policy in place regarding appearance. The policy contained a number of detailed provisions in relation to make-up, hair and clothing.

Nicola was sent home from work, without pay, because she refused to wear shoes that conformed with Portico’s policy. Nicola stated that she was not able to comply with the requirements of her role, which included being on her feet most of the day greeting clients, in heels of the height required in the policy.

The issue was hotly debated on social media. Many people weighed in with their opinions which sparked a number of debates on health, sexualisation of women and corporate culture. Nicola started an e-petition on the Government website stating that it should be ‘illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels’. The petition gained over 150,000 signatures, triggering a mandatory debate in Parliament.

In January of this year, in advance of the Parliamentary debate, the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee jointly published a report called ‘high heels and workplace dress codes’. The report found that the current law does protect against discrimination, but that many policies in companies are not compliant. There is a large amount of uncertainty for employers and employees because there have not been many test cases taken through the Tribunal system. The report makes three broad recommendations, being:
1.    The Government to review this area of the law and to ask Parliament to amend it, if necessary, to make it more effective;
2.    For more effective remedies for Employment Tribunals to award against employers who breach the law; and
3.    For detailed guidance and awareness campaigns targeted at employers, workers and students.

The matter was debated in Parliament and, as a result of the petition and debate, the Government has stated that it will be issuing more guidance for companies on workplace dress rules. Seemingly the Government is acknowledging a difference between current discrimination legislation, and how this is working practically for employees.

After the debate, Caroline Dinenage, the Women’s and Equalities Minister, stated that the Government would support the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in legal actions against companies. There is growing backing for, and awareness of, employees being subjected to discriminatory policies. It is important to highlight this given that the ‘high heels and workplace dress codes’ report found that ‘many employees do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful’.

Portico has since changed their dress code and appearance policy. Although Nicola’s experience has positively impacted on the Government’s awareness of discriminatory policies, it is clear that many employers still have discriminatory policies in place. It is only when these are questioned that the issue is addressed.