How far can your boss dictate your appearance?

Government to debate rules on high heels

Updated: 
cropped image of woman in high...

The recent case of the receptionist sent home from work for wearing flat shoes has highlighted the issue of appearance in the workplace.

Nicola Thorp, who worked for temping agency Portico, was sent to PwC where, she says, a supervisor told her she should be wearing heels between two and four inches high. She was told that she'd be sent home without pay if she didn't go and buy a pair.

There was an outcry, and Portico has since said it's reviewing its dress code and that women will be allowed to wear flats from now on. But how far can a boss dictate your appearance?

It is, of course, perfectly legal for a company to enforce a dress code - you'd never be able to identify shop staff if that weren't the case. And many jobs require specialist safety clothing.

However, the law stipulates that where the dress code is different for women and men, it mustn't be discriminatory.

"In respect of high heels, you would question why there is a requirement for the same and whether, for example, flat shoes would portray the equivalent level of smartness, to which I expect the answer would be 'yes'. Furthermore, there may also be certain health and safety concerns to wearing heels," says employment lawyer Danielle Ayres of Gorvins solicitors.

"Miss Thorp questioned why a male colleague was allowed to wear flat shoes, but she wasn't and was roundly laughed at."

However, Ms Thorp is far from alone in having been asked to alter her appearance at work. In a recent survey, OfficeGenie.co.uk found that eight percent of people had had it happen to them.

Three-quarters of workers - including 79% of women - said they believed that there should be strong legislation to ban appearance-based discrimination.

"British workers clearly feel they are not being protected against the sort of appalling discrimination Nicola Thorp has recently had to endure," says the company's head of strategy, Peter Ames.

"The way someone looks, and the way they dress, is generally as much a part of someone's identity as their race, personality, gender and so on - and the current legislation is simply not tough enough."

There have been a number of cases relating to dress codes and appearance discrimination in the UK, with religious dress a particularly thorny issue.

In one case last year, a woman applying for a job as a nursery worker was told she wouldn't be allowed to wear a floor-length jilbab as it would create a trip hazard.

She complained to the Employment Appeal Tribunal - but lost, as it was ruled that an ankle-length version would be perfectly permissible under her religion.

Dress codes have also been accused of having racist overtones. Late last year, for example, a Bournemouth University graduate claimed that she'd had a job offer withdrawn because her hair was in braids.

"Requiring a client-facing employee with a particularly wild hairstyle to calm her hairstyle down would normally be reasonable (if the employer legitimately wishes to present a professional image)," says an expert from HR legal specialist My HR Dept.

"Banning hair ringlets would not be reasonable, as more Afro-Caribbean employees have this type of hair and would therefore be at a disadvantage."

And rules over smartness can't necessarily be enforced if staff aren't in a customer-facing position. In one case, for example, a tribunal found that a company was wrong to have fired an electrician for refusing to cut his hair, as long hair didn't stop him performing his duties.

Similarly, whether or not a ban on tattoos is legal depends on the nature of the job. Cabin crew, nurses and police officers all face restrictions, for example.

"We would advise anyone thinking of getting a tattoo to consider carefully how this may affect their current or future job prospects as the law is still ambiguous," says Katherine Maxwell, partner and head of employment law at Moore Blatch Solicitors.

"We would also advise businesses who are considering introducing a new policy which prohibits tattoos to be careful when drawing up their code of conduct. Employers should take into account existing employees with tattoos and also think about whether the tattoo would affect the job, and, if yes, in what way."

It's worth remembering that while Portico backed down over Ms Thorp's heels, it is still legal for employers to enforce rules like this if they can successfully argue that restrictions on men's dress are broadly comparable overall to those faced by women in the organisation.

But a petition calling for the government to outlaw compulsory high heels has now reached nearly 140,000 signatures - enough to guarantee a debate in parliament - so watch this space.

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