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Staff uniform policies- dealing with them sensibly

24th May 2016

The recent case of a London receptionist being sent home from work after refusing to wear high heels is a reminder of just how important the topic of staff uniforms can be to some businesses. However, the case also illustrates just how irrational and obsessive some managers and businesses can become over this subject.

Nicola Thorp was employed as a temp at finance company PwC (Pricewaterhouse Coopers as most of us still know it) as a receptionist. On her first day at work she arrived wearing flat shoes. She had worn the smart flat shoes at another location. She was told that she had to wear shoes with a heel of between 2 and 4 inches in height. Ms Thorp refused to wear such heels. The response was that she was sent home and told that she should go and buy a pair of heels. She asked her employer if not wearing heels would impair her in her job in any way, but they were unable to answer that question. In addition she asked if a man would be expected to do the same job wearing heels, at which the employer simply laughed.

After speaking to a friend about the situation, Ms Thorp put up a posting on Facebook, and then discovered that many other people had encountered similar problems at work. Subsequently she set up a petition calling the Government to change the law so that women could not be forced to wear high heels at work. That petition has received over 55,000 of signatures in support.

In response the employer, Portico, has reviewed its policy, and has said it will allow its staff to wear flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer. Naturally in response to the publicity over this matter the managing director of Portico, Simon Pratt, has said that Ms Thorp did sign the "appearance guidelines", and that it was "common practice within the service sector to have appearance guidelines", which "ensure customer-facing staff are consistently well presented and positively represent a client's brand and image."

It is perhaps rather ironic then that their client (PwC) have stated that "PwC does not have specific dress guidelines for male or female employees." The concerns about the requirement of high heels that Ms Thorp raised were in part in respect  of health and safety- ie the negative health impact of having to wear high heels for hours at a time day after day. 

Readers may also remember the case in 2010 of an individual being told that she could not wear a poppy to work in the run up to Remembrance Day, because it was not part of their dress code. that case involved Ms Harriet Phipps, who attended work in the days leading up to Remembrance Day wearing a poppy, to be challenged by her manager at Hollister to remove it as it was not in their dress code.

Both these cases highlight the problems that occur when employers adopt an inflexible approach to dress codes. The case of Ms Thorp illustrates that there can be perfectly valid and reasonable alternatives that can meet the broad standards of dress that a business may want from its staff, without being inflexible. The case of Ms Phipps illustrates the fact that certain modest changes (such as wearing a poppy in the period up to Remembrance Day) will not offend any customer or client, and not detract from the required corporate image, while still enabling the employee to demonstrate a committment to a public and national issue (ie the act of rememberance of the nation's war dead and armed forces). 

Ms Thorp raised the issue of sex discrimination in her situation. However, the case law has for some time accepted that employers can establish different dress codes for their male and female staff, so long as there is an equivalent level of smartness required from both. In many respects for men working in office environments the usual dress code is easy to understand and identify- wearing a smart suit, shirt and tie is the most common. Admittedly there has long been greater flexibility and variation in the expected dress codes for female staff (unless a distinct uniform is provided). Unless there is a distinct uniform it should be easy for people to know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. 

The two cases mentioned illustrate one thing of particular importance, which is for managers to use a degree of common sense in their approach. If there is a health and safety issue in the circumstances that really must be given careful consideration above a blunt insistence on a particular dress code. We also beg the question of how many customers or clients actually would have any problem or concern that a receptionist escorted them to the meeting room wearing flat shoes instead of high heels!

While a certain level of consistency can properly be expected and required, these cases illustrate the need to managers to take a sensible approach to this topic, and perhaps for them to give a bit more credit to their customers- after all would any customer really be offended to see an employee wearing a poppy in the run up to Remembrance Day, or scrutinise the footwear of the staff with a view to placing their business on that basis? 

If you need advice on any of the issues raised in this article do not hesitate to contact Hallett Employment Law Services Ltd

1. www.standard.co.uk/news/london/nicola-thorp-firm-in-high-heels 12 May 2016.

2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-36264229 12 May 2016

3. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-11720096 24 May 2016             

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