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News & Knowledge

Brought to heel: Discriminatory dress codes in the UK workplace

30th January 2017

Two House of Commons committees have published a report on Wednesday 25th January calling for better legal protection for female workers who are subjected to discriminatory dress codes. The investigation was triggered by the case of Nicola Thorp who was sent home without pay by her employer for not complying with a requirement to wear high heels of between two and four inches. MSI's Northern UK law member Myerson explains further.

Ms Thorp worked for Portico, a reception services provider. At the time she was assigned to an office of PwC in central London. She attended work in 2015 wearing a pair of flat soled shoes. Having refused the suggestion that she visited a nearby shop to purchase a pair of high heels she was sent home without pay.

Further details of the dress code at Portico have come to light since Ms Thorp’s case came to the attention of the media. Other examples include: hair colour should be “regularly maintained”; makeup should be worn at all times and be “regularly applied”; choosing not to wear makeup was not permitted unless for medical reasons; hands and nails had to be “well-manicured”; and in relation to nail polish the company provided workers with a colour palette guide.

As well as pursuing a claim for breach of the Equality Act, Ms Thorp also created an online petition on the House of Commons website. It received over 150,000 signatures, which meant it crossed the threshold to be considered by Parliament. Both the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee launched their own investigation. They received submissions from other women describing instances of discriminatory treatment in relation to dress codes and personal appearance in the workplace. The committees also considered the risks to health from prolonged wearing of high heels, which included hearing evidence from the College of Podiatry.

The conclusion of the two committees is that the current protection under the Equality Act does not go far enough. Their report states: “It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work.” They have recommended that further legislation could be required in this area to ensure that the law works “in practice as well as theory”. Parliament is due to debate the issue in March.

The case of Ms Thorp highlights the additional risk of reputational damage, as well as the risk of discrimination claims being pursued. Ms Thorp was employed by Portico, the service provider, rather than PwC. However such specifics have not always been conveyed in the media reports and so PwC have become associated with the negative publicity of this story, as well as Portico.

If you have any questions regarding these issues please do not hesitate to contact Myerson’s Employment team on 0161 941 4000.

About Myerson - Manchester

Myerson was founded in Manchester, Cheshire over 30 years ago and is a leading, full service commercial and private client law firm providing bespoke legal advice to businesses and affluent individuals across Manchester, Cheshire, the UK and beyond.

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