Sexist dress codes could attract stricter punishment and fines

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Nicola Thorp set up a petition to make it illegal for employers to force staff to wear heels
Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Employers that enforce sexist dress codes could be in line for stricter punishment and fines, if the Government follows recommendations set out in a new report.

The report, High heels and workplace dress codes, was put together jointly by the Women and Equalities Commission and the Petitions Commission.

An inquiry was triggered last year by receptionist Nicola Thorp, who set up a parliamentary petition to make it illegal for companies to force employees to wear high heels to work.

Thorp had been sent home from an assignment at consulting company PwC after being told it was her agency’s “grooming policy” for women to wear two-to-four inch heels. Her petition received more than 150,000 signatures.

The report recommends that the Government “takes urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act” and that employment tribunals should be able to ask for more effective remedies, such as financial penalties, for those employers who breach the law.

It says: “It is clear that there are not currently enough disincentives to prevent employers breaching the law. While negative publicity will be a disincentive for many employers, this cannot and should not be relied on to prevent unlawful discrimination.

“The Government must substantially increase the financial penalties for employers found by employment tribunals to have breached the law.

“Penalties should be set at such a level as to ensure that employees are not deterred from bringing claims, and to deter employers from breaching the legislation.”

It includes medical evidence from the College of Podiatry suggesting that women who have to wear high heels for extended periods of time could suffer long-term health problems. Many women who supplied evidence to the inquiry said they would struggle to wear high heels due to conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy.

A web forum set up to gather evidence from women on their experience of being made to adhere to certain dress codes attracted 730 comments.

The majority of posters who said they had to wear high heels as part of a workplace dress code worked in the retail, hospitality, airline or corporate industries.

Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Nicola Thorp in flat shoes
Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The committees have also asked the Government to introduce better guidance and awareness campaigns to improve understanding of the law and workers’ rights in this area.

Helen Jones, MP, chair of the Petitions Committee, said: “The Government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay.

“It’s clear from the stories we’ve heard from members of the public that Nicola’s story is far from unique.”

Thorp welcomed the recommendations, commenting: “I am in full support of the recommendations within the Committees’ report.

“This may have started over a pair of high heels, but what it has revealed about discrimination in the UK workplace is vital, as demonstrated by the hundreds of women who came forward via the Committees’ online forum. But employees should be able to speak out about workplace discrimination on a platform other than an online message board, without fear of losing their jobs.

“The current system favours the employer, and is failing employees. It is crucial that the law is amended so that gender-neutral dress codes become the norm, so that they do not exacerbate discrimination against the LGBTQ communities and those who do not conform to gender stereotypes.

“The law must also work in practice as well as theory; negative publicity and online petitions shouldn’t be relied on to prevent discrimination at work.”

Danny Clarke, group operations director at HR and legal consultancy ELAS, gave the following advice: “Now that Parliament has recommended changes in guidance or legislation, which include requirements for health and safety considerations, we would suggest responsible employers stay one step ahead by updating dress code policies to reflect their commitment to protecting employees’ health.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “Far too many employers are still stuck in the past when it comes to dress codes. It is unacceptable that in 2017 bosses are still forcing women to wear painful, inappropriate shoes and uniforms.

“Wearing high heels on a regular basis can cause foot, knee and back problems. High heels and make-up should be a choice, not a condition of the job.

“But with employment tribunals costing up to £1,200 – even if you’re on the minimum wage – many women can’t afford to challenge sexist policies. If ministers are serious about enforcing equality legislation then they should scrap tribunal fees immediately.”

Stephen Simpson, principal employment law editor at XpertHR, reiterated that the law already protects workers against discriminatory dress codes via indirect discrimination under the Equality Act.

“Employers’ rules on appearance must be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. In practice, this means that the more detailed the employer’s rules, the stronger their justification must be,” he said.

“The inquiry suggests that what constitutes a legitimate aim should be more clearly defined under the legislation, with examples given including health and safety, projecting a smart and uniform image, and preventing appearance that may cause offence.

“Any attempt to change the Equality Act would face the counter-arguments that the law already provides protection and that overly prescriptive legislation can cause unforeseen difficulties.

“Surely the bigger problem here is with enforcement of the Equality Act. Tribunal fees simply make it unfeasible for most workers to bring a claim over the legality of their employer’s dress code. Even if an individual is brave enough to embark on a long and costly tribunal claim, the chances of an employer being forced to change its dress code are slim: tribunal powers for making recommendations to employers are extraordinarily weak and rarely invoked.”

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