A Parliamentary committee has recommended a change in the law regarding dress code discrimination in the workplace as well as clearer guidance regarding footwear when it comes to health and safety legislation. From Emma O’Leary, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group.
There are three steps a company needs to consider when looking at a dress code policy: Step 1 – What are you trying to achieve? Are you asking women to wear high heels because it makes them look better/sexier in your mind or is it to enhance a professional image in a client facing role? Emma says: “First impressions are important. In a sophisticated smart environment then it can be argued high heels add to a professional appearance, however the same could be achieved with formal flat shoes. A company needs to look at why they want women to wear heels. If it’s because they feel women are better to look at then stop, however, if it’s for professional/smarter appearance then yes this can be fine if the person is working in a client facing role. The important thing is that the policy is reasonable and needs to be applied equally to men doing a similar role. While you would never ask a man to wear high heels you could require them to wear a tie or have a neatly trimmed beard rather than stubble yet it would be inappropriate to ask a woman in the role if she had shaved her legs.”
Step 2 – Is what you are doing proportionate to what you are trying to achieve or are you going over the top? Step 3 – Dress code should be balanced with other considerations such as health and safety, not just in the workplace but also for the person wearing the item of clothing. You wouldn’t expect someone to wear a tie around fast moving dangerous machines. Equally, forcing someone with a disability to wear high heels might exasperate conditions surrounding their disability.
Danny Clarke is Group Operations Director for ELAS. He agrees that health and safety guidelines regarding high heels and the potential long term damage that comes with wearing them on a regular basis might need looking at; particularly when it comes to strain on the upper part of the legs and pressure that is placed on the toes when wearing high heels.
Danny says: “Ultimately footwear needs to be sensible and suitable for work activities and the working environment. Certain environments such as factories, warehouses or transportation typically require the wearing of closed toe or steel capped shoes. High heels are normally deemed necessary as part of a corporate dress policy but with research highlighting the risks of long-term musculoskeletal damage as a result of wearing them, it may be time for employers to review these strict dress codes. Taking into account employers’ duty of care to protect their employees’ health in the workplace, I would suggest that they consider reviewing these dress codes and determining whether the requirement to wear high heels is necessary. If employees spend the majority of the day on their feet, are required to carry heavy or awkward loads or walk any kind of distance then we would recommend this be taken into account.”
Evidence suggests that high heels alter the wearers’ stance, physiology and gait. Podiatrist Kathryn Rutter says: “The foot is designed to deal with gravity and forces in a specific way. If a heel is worn for long periods of time then the position of the foot changes, leading to foot deformity and joint pain in the feet, back and knees. Often corns and calluses occur. Can it therefore be right to force employees to wear high heels for work?” The College of Podiatry submitted evidence to the Parliamentary committee and says they: “…recommend that women should not be forced to wear high heeled shoes in the work place as part of a uniform. We believe that there is a strong body of clinical evidence that significantly indicates the medical and disabling effects of wearing a high heel shoe over a prolonged amount of time.
“Despite the fact that there is an abundance of medical and scientific evidence, consideration of the effect the shoe has on the health of the individual as part of a dress code has not previously been addressed. We conducted a survey which revealed that women complain of foot pain on average 1 hour, 6 minutes and 48 seconds after putting on ill-fitting high heel shoes. A fifth of responders said that their feet began to hurt after just 10 minutes’ wear. Given the length of a working day, this would mean working from about 10am until 5pm in pain on a typical 9am-5pm day.”
The Parliamentary Petitions Committee set up a web forum ahead of their evidentiary hearings, which generated 730 comments on the issue. The majority of posters who said they had to wear high heels as part of a workplace dress code work in the retail, hospitality, airline or corporate industries. Within the retail industry luxury department stores, shoe chains and jewellers were those most regularly mentioned. Roxanna works for a shoe company. She posted saying: “My employer requires us to wear high heeled pointy shoes of their choice; we are not allowed to wear alternative flat heeled shoes that are available within the range. We stand all day for eight hours wearing heels and are not allowed to sit. The stock room is not close to the shop floor and we walk back and forth about 50-60 times a day holding heavy boxes of shoes and boots. We are expected to climb up and down stock room ladders while wearing high heels. None of the male staff within the company are forced to wear heels.”
Chloe worked at a luxury department store, she said: “A minimum of a 3″ heel was required in the nursery furniture department I worked in. We were expected to wear high heels whilst taking trips to the basement to bring up pushchairs and small items of furniture for customers.” Estate agent Candy said that: “I was told I must wear heels as its professional. I worked 12 hour days and my job involved walking around a lot, which was particularly problematic in winter. I had to show an applicant a property in the snow and looked ridiculous teetering up the hill trying not to fall on my face while my applicant had appropriate snow shoes on.” Danny Clarke says: “Comments on the forum clearly showed that employers are not considering the work their employees carry out in their daily duties when requiring them to wear high heels. Is there a reason they are specifying high heels as opposed to flat shoes, particularly in inclement weather? While there is nothing wrong with wanting to maintain a professional image in the workplace, employers should look at whether they are putting employees at risk. A comprehensive risk assessment should look at whether there is an impact on an employee from wearing high heels in a particular job, whether an employee has back pain or issues and how they might be affected in the role. If issues aren’t identified before an employee starts work then it is possible that the employer might contribute to the employee’s back pain. Likewise if an employer requires employees to wear high heels purely for aesthetic reasons then they could be at risk of a discrimination claim.” He continues: “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.”