In 2016 receptionist Nicola Thorp was sent home on her first day of work at a corporate finance company in the City of London. This was because she refused to wear shoes with two to four inch high heels. She launched an online petition calling for the law to be changed and garnered more than 152,000 signatures. The Parliamentary Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee did find “potentially discriminatory dress codes are commonplace”. But in March 2017 Parliament announced it would not be changing the law.

The good news is that the Government Equalities Office has now provided clarity to both employers and employees and job seekers with its publication, “Dress Codes And Sex Discrimination – What You Need To Know”, available on the Gov.UK site.

So why is dress code significant? It can present the professional image of a business, or provide consistency, or can be important for health and safety. But it’s also a minefield in terms of discrimination.

The Government Equalities Office publication recognises that employers can set a standard for the dress of employees and suggests this is best done in consultation with unions or employees. Employers should take the opportunity to explain their reasoning. A dress code can become a valid term in an employee’s contract of employment.

Whilst such a code does not have to be identical for women and men, there should be equivalence.

So it would be hard justifying women wearing formal black clothes when the men can make do with sweatshirt and jeans. But it’s acceptable for men to be required to wear ties if women are expected to be equally formal.

Female employees should certainly not be expected to dress provocatively. Dress can lead to harassment especially in retail situations.

So what’s a safe dress code?  This might for example be a supplied uniform, or a black suit and low heeled black shoes. Transgender staff should be given the option of interpreting the dress code, or wearing the supplied uniform, for whatever gender they choose. It’s a question of requiring similar standards from all employees, whether they be male or female or transgender, and treating the requirement with equal rigour in each case.
 
And finally, gender specific clothing or appearance is to be avoided, and that, of course, includes two to four inch heels.

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