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Why employers should take notice of the Nicola Thorp 'high heels' case



The explosion of media interest in the case of Nicola Thorp, the receptionist working for outsourcing firm Portico at the London offices of PWC who was instructed that she must wear high heels to work, has demonstrated to all employers how important it is to have up-to-date policies which reflect both the law and the need to protect your brand from negative public perceptions.

It is of course perfectly acceptable for an employer to insist on a dress code which reflects the level of professionalism they want to convey to clients and visitors.  What’s more, that code can stipulate different things for male and female employees, providing there is a good reason for doing so, an equivalent level of smartness, and either gender is not treated less favourably.

The Equality Act of 2010 brought together a whole raft of previous legislation, including the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and laws relating to discrimination on the grounds of race, age, religion and belief and various other characteristics.

The online petition which has attracted so many signatures following the Nicola Thorp case is calling for a change in the law; in fact, the Equality Act already protects employees in relation to dress codes which discriminate against either gender on any basis which could be deemed sexist (such as ‘looking nice’).

Employers need to be very careful that they don’t have policies which put any particular group at a disadvantage.  Bear in mind also that while the law may not change, interpretation of it might over time – not so long ago it was commonplace for women in offices to be forbidden from wearing trousers, which would be unthinkable today.  One suspects (and hopes) that the ‘high heels’ clauses may be similarly heading for the scrapheap of history.

Employers must be able to show that any rule which applies to one group and not another is justified with a good reason.  So, for example, a rule prohibiting jewellery displaying a religious icon might be justified in a hospital where health and safety and/or hygiene is an over-riding consideration, but probably wouldn’t be in an office situation.

We shouldn’t forget the health and safety implications of this particular issue either.  Insisting that an employee who is going to spend much of the day on their feet should wear high heels rather opens up the possibility of the staff member sustaining injuries, and potentially bringing action against the employer.

Because the interpretation of such laws tends to be driven by societal changes, it is vital for employers to review such policies regularly – ideally annually. 

This isn’t just a legal issue, as we have seen in the Nicola Thorp example.  No case has been brought against the employer, but untold reputational damage has been done to both Portico, and their client PWC (although to be fair, both have acted quickly to limit this damage).

In an era when social media can turn such cases into a national talking point, employers need to ensure that their dress code reflects not only the legal requirements, but also the cultural sensitivities which play such a big part in maintaining their reputation with both employees and customers.

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