Bringing dress codes to heel

David Merlin-Jones

High heels are a hot topic this week, and not just because Christian Louboutin’s summer collection is out. An outsourcing agency ordered a female worker home because she was not wearing high heels, a requirement of the agency’s dress code. The worker, who was employed as a receptionist in the City, questioned why heels were mandatory and that pointed out she could do the same job in a flat shoes, public outcry ensued, a petition was started and the agency promised to review its policy.dress code

Workplace dress codes are common, and are designed to set standards which reflect each particular business’s needs. Professional dress is the norm in Bishopsgate but is more relaxed in Old Street’s Silicon Valley. Where there are health and safety risks such as in a hospital or on an oil rig, there will be strict rules with minimum flexibility.

The golden rule is to ensure that the same standards of formality/informality are applied to both men and women. Different rules can apply provided that they are treated the same overall. For instance, a requirement that men should wear ties (because sadly cravats are no longer acceptable) clearly could not be applied to women. In that case, a non-discriminatory policy would say “women should wear smart attire”.

But in a modern world where gender stereotypes are being banished, this can make comparisons less obvious. If a woman has to wear heels, what is the equivalent requirement for her male colleagues? Clearly not full brogues and a bowler hat, as one commentator suggested – one never wears a hat indoors and the shoes are too informal for the office.

Hair is a good example. Both men and women can have short and long hair, but would a man with a top-knot or shoulder-length hair be considered professional? In  for the Metropolis EAT/0234/09 a policy which said men should have short hair was not considered discriminatory on the basis that, taking the relevant dress code as a whole, it treated men and women equally, and to apply a conventional dress code is not in itself discriminatory. A gender-less requirement for neat and tidy hair may have avoided this claim.

Even the City goes casual on dress-down Fridays. While a plethora of clothes are modelled on casual days, it is usually clear that this is not an excuse for “anything goes”. Codes need to mirror expectations. Linen shirts might be acceptable for a professional firm but Bermuda shirts would, I suspect, cross the line. Flip-flops will also be unacceptable even on hot summer days.

Employers should take a common-sense approach to dress codes. Explain why rules are required and give guidelines with examples of what is not acceptable, but be flexible enough to accommodate various religious and ethnic dress requirements. Where the rules need to be strict for business reasons, say so.

What to wear to work and elsewhere is not rocket science: most employees get it and only require the expected parameters and a few guidelines. Micromanaging wardrobes is best left to the employees, not employers.

Refer to Acas Guidance on dress code.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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