Top accountancy firm PwC hit the headlines yesterday when a temporary receptionist was sent home for not wearing high heels. While it may not appear related, the situation has many parallels with the famous case of whether a Christian can wear a cross in work – something which went all the way to the European Court to decide.
So can an employer have a dress code? And can it include a requirement to wear high heels?
The answer to the first question is yes – but you need to have a reason why you want one.
If the reason is health and safety, things are relatively simple. If employees must wear hi-vis jackets, safety shoes or tie long hair back to avoid it being caught in machinery, then you are fine with enforcing rules – and indeed the vast majority of employees would understand and accept this.
Equally, if it is a condition of employment to wear a uniform, you’re also on safe ground. Lots of people wear uniforms to identify themselves either to customers or to show the company they are representing. While it’s perfectly possible to be a courier, security guard or airline pilot without wearing a uniform, it’s a requirement of most employers in those sectors that their staff do so.
Where things can become a bit more nebulous is when you want to enforce a dress standard to promote a “corporate image”. You need to ensure that any dress code is non-discriminatory (particularly on gender and religious grounds) and proportionate to what you are trying to achieve. So if you want to say that employees must wear smart business dress this is fine (and you can define this as a suit and tie for men, and a business suit for women). But the reason for this needs to be clear – for example because it would be expected by business contacts, customers etc. What you need to consider is the culture and the expectations of your company and the industry it operates in. Does it really affect the performance of your call centre if staff wear jeans, t-shirts and trainers?
So the answer to question 2 – can a dress code require a female employee to wear high heels? – is a “no” on sex discrimination grounds and a “why would it be necessary?” on the grounds of being reasonable.
Like many things related to HR, the key question for business owners is whether the dress code rules actually serve a business purpose or are they just petty restrictions?