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Posted 19 May 2016
by Stephen Jennings

Sending an employee home for refusing to wear high heels – a step too far?

A female member of staff in London alleges that she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. The employee says that on her first day as a receptionist she was told to go home without pay unless she went out and bought shoes with heels that were between two and four inches high. She has now set up an online petition demanding that women have the option to wear flat shoes at work. But was her employer’s request reasonable?

Employment Tribunals have made it clear that employers do have discretion when controlling their company’s image, which includes the appearance of staff. This is particularly important where an employee’s duties will bring them into contact with customers and clients, such as working on a reception. Even if there is no formal dress code policy, there is likely to be an implied term that employees should be suitably presentable to undertake their duties. Case law has shown that there must be a balance between the employer’s business interests and an employee’s right to freedom. In determining whether a particular dress code policy is reasonable, an employment tribunal will look at the facts and assess whether the needs of the business justify its rules on appearance.

There is also the question of whether a dress code requirement aimed only at female employees would amount to sex discrimination. Under UK law an employer can have a separate dress code for male and female employees, but the policy must be justified in that it pursues a legitimate aim and is proportionate. The Court of Appeal has previously held that a dress code requiring female employees to wear a skirt and not trousers at work did not amount to sex discrimination because the overall effect of the code in that case was broadly the same to both male and female employees, and one sex was not treated less favourably than the other. Similarly, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that a male employee who was obliged to wear a shirt and tie to work where his female colleagues were not, did not amount to discrimination on the basis that an even-handed approach had been adopted towards the separate dress codes and therefore one sex was not treated less favourably.

Whether a dress code stipulating that women wear high heels is a justifiable rule of appearance, or whether it could amount to discrimination is a matter of debate. Whatever your opinion, the petition demanding that women have the option to wear flat shoes at work has now amassed over 20,000 signatures meaning that the government must give a comment. If it reaches 100,000 signatures then MPs could debate this in Parliament and determine the issue once and for all.


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About the author

Stephen Jennings

Partner and Solicitor

Partner in the litigation department specialising in employment law, he is the relationship manager for many of the firm's employment clients