In a matter of hours, more than 30,000 people have signed a petition in support of Nicola Thorp, who was sent home without pay by temping company Portico for refusing to buy a pair of high heels to wear at her receptionist assignment at PwC. She was told flat shoes were not part of the dress code (which specified a heel height between 2 and 4 inches), and is calling for a change in the law. ACAS have a handy video about what can and can’t be in company dress codes, with more detailed information on their website. However it is not entirely clear cut.
It all hinges on whether it is reasonable to require someone to wear high heels as part of the company dress code.
If someone has a medical condition which means they can’t wear high heels, then disability protections mean reasonable adjustments are needed, and in all likelihood they would be exempted from that part of the dress code.
Differences in dress codes between men and women are allowed - for example as you sometimes see on airlines where male attendants wear a shirt and tie with the female crew wearing those funny chiffon neckerchiefs instead.
But if men can wear flat shoes at PwC reception, is it discriminatory to force women to wear heels?
ACAS flags up the magic wording - dress codes should “relate to the job and be reasonable in nature”. Like so much in legislation, it comes back to that age old question of what is reasonable. The downside is this creates a grey area, but the positive side is that the legislation can be interpreted in the current context, rather than setting in stone specifics which might rapidly get outdated.
If you’re acting the part of Cruella de Vil, or modelling Louboutins, then a requirement to wear high heels probably is related to the job and reasonable. If you’re answering phones and greeting visitors at a reception desk, and the men can manage it without stilettos, then maybe it’s time to update the dress code.