By Claire Zillman
January 26, 2017

Last year, there was quite the hubbub when a temp worker named Nicola Thorp was sent home without pay from a scheduled receptionist job after refusing to wear shoes with a high heel. She said her employer, the Portico temp agency, had insisted that high heels were part of proper “female grooming,” and that it argued that Thorp had signed its “appearance guidelines.”

The incident went viral and prompted a discussion about whether employers could force women to spend their days teetering on stilettos. At the time, Anna Birtwistle, a partner at employment firm CM Murray in London, told me that the legality of mandatory high heels was murky. “There is no written statutory law that deals with dress codes per se,” she said. Employers generally have the right to enforce dress codes at work if it’s a “reasonable request,” she said.

Some members of the U.K. Parliament sought to clear up that ambiguity yesterday. They issued a report that said dress codes like the one Thorp was subjected to are unlawful but remain widespread. It urged the government to level heavier penalties against employers that violate the law in an effort to increase compliance. “At present, such penalties are not sufficient deterrent,” the report says.

A petition Thorp started after being sent home is what prompted the MPs’ inquiry. “The current system favors the employer, and is failing employees,” Thorp said yesterday. “It is crucial that the law is amended so that gender-neutral dress codes become the norm so that they do not exacerbate discrimination against the LGBTQ communities and those who do not conform to gender stereotypes.”



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