"Managing People with Morecrofts"

Brought to heel

by Thomas Sutherland

The media has reported the case of Nicola Thorp, a corporate receptionist at a major City firm in London.  Ms Thorp was sent home on her first day at work for refusing to wear high heels after being invited to go out and purchase some for her new role.

The main question is – can an employer do this?

Well, let’s look at both sides.  Ms Thorp felt that she would struggle to perform a nine-hour shift of escorting clients to meeting rooms and moving around the office in two- to four-inch heels.  This was because of the pain and discomfort the shoes would cause.  It is certainly undeniable that wearing high heels can cause pain and can even cause long-term medical conditions.

Multiple podiatry and biomechanics experts feel that wearing high heels can damage foot joints, cause additional wear and tear to knee joints and even cause certain types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis. 

Earlier this week, Ms Thorp set up a petition demanding that women should have “the option to wear flat formal shoes at work”.  The petition states that the law at present is “outdated and sexist”.  The petition currently has several thousand signatures and Ms Thorp hopes to present it to the Government if it reaches 100,000 signatories.

The employer has responded by stating that having guidelines on personal presentation are “in line with industry standard practice”.  It has, however, stated that it is now ‘reviewing’ its guidelines. 

So, what is the legal position? 

Well, an employer could discipline employees who fail to follow a “reasonable” dress code.  The main question being what is “reasonable” and what is sexist?

If the reason for the different dress codes between men and women is genuinely due to simply trying to achieve an “equivalent level of smartness” and doesn’t involve health and safety concerns, an employer can do this.

However, if the reason for the dress code was because the firm thought their female employees would look more attractive in high heels, this would give rise to a claim of sex discrimination against female workers.

There is now increasing pressure on the Government from trade unions for high heels requirements to be banned.  This is partly on grounds of the health risks through excessive use and partly on equality grounds between men and women; the obvious argument being that men in positions of authority don’t appreciate the risks of wearing high heels.

It remains to be seen whether the Government will be forced to hear the petition and have to consider putting the shoe on the other foot…