It was recently reported that a 27-year-old from London was sent home from her role as an agency worker at a top accountancy firm without pay as she refused to wear heels at work. This comes days after a Canadian woman posted pictures of her friend’s bloodied and bruised feet after wearing heels at work all day. In both instances the employers stated that heels were a necessary part of the workplace dress code which all employees must adhere to.
The health risks related to wearing heels at work (and generally) are well documented and can include calf, knee and back problems amongst other afflictions.
So what is the position regarding workplace dress codes?
Some employers impose a strict (and sometimes bizarre) dress code on their employees. Examples include:
- A Swiss bank which issued guidance by way of a 44-page dress code document. The guidance stipulated that women should wear flesh coloured underwear, ‘garlic breath’ was to be avoided, the best perfume to wear and even the length of employees’ toenails.
- An investment bank which issued a memo reminding their employees to shave, polish their shoes and consider investing in an iron.
The law states that any dress codes must apply equally to men and women, even if the exact requirements differ slightly. For example a policy may state "business dress" for women but may state that men “must wear a tie". This would not be discriminatory and the outcome is the same, a desire for employees to look smart.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes it clear that an employer has a duty to provide a safe working environment. There is nothing to stop an employer stipulating a dress code policy in an employment contract if the standards are required for safety reasons, such as hard hats on a building site.
Reasonable adjustments must be made for disabled persons where a dress code is in place.
If a dress code applies only to one gender, it may be discriminatory and could potentially be challenged, especially if non-compliance resulted in disciplinary action.