Avoid putting your foot in it. Is forcing women to wear heels legal?

Temporary female employee Nicola Thorpe; was sent home after she told management on her first-day at work as a receptionist in London that she wouldn’t be wearing high heels. After refusing to comply with the organisations strict dress code, she was promptly sent home with no pay.

Feeling aggrieved by her situation; Nicola set up a petition to the government demanding that “women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work”. The petition says the law as it stands is “outdated and sexist”. So far it has picked up more than 20,000 signatures and, as a result, the temping agency has agreed to review its policy on employee dress code.

But is this legal? In a word, yes.

Legally, as it currently stands, UK employers can dismiss any members of staff who fail to comply with “reasonable” dress code demands.  Different dress codes can be set up for men and women but each must outline an “equivalent level of smartness”.

The particulars of this case, however, are more of a grey area. Demanding that women wear high heels could be seen as “sexist” as this type of shoe is not necessary to satisfy the requirements of the role being performed. If a woman thought a dress code had been set to make her look more “sexy” then that person could bring a lawsuit against her employer as being sexy at work is not a job requirement.

This is not the first time that heels have caused controversy; in 2015 at the Cannes Film festival all women attending the event and walking along the red carpet were instructed to wear high heels; never mind the bunions or back problems.

But what does this mean exactly?  Only allowed to attend an award ceremony if a bit of cleavage is on show?

Let’s be honest, receiving one of those invites which vaguely reads ‘smart casual’ leaves us none the wiser as to the dress code; all a bit of a nightmare.

So what happened next?

The managing director of the temping agency, in this case, had reported that Nicola Thorpe had turned up for work wearing “inappropriate footwear”. Management had followed protocol in this situation.

Although the company was not in breach of any laws, it has made itself particularly unpopular and found itself in the media spotlight, facing criticism it could surely have done without. Following backlash from the British public, the firm has since announced that it will be reviewing its dress code guidelines.

Employment law is a complex area full of pitfalls and getting it right to avoid expensive lawsuits or unwanted media attention, means keeping up to date with developments, thinking about corporate policies and implementing these policies with care. Altior provides a range of employment law training courses to help your business mitigate its risk.

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