Susan Raftery discusses dress codes in the workplace.

Susan Raftery

Susan Raftery is a Conciliator based in Manchester.

Susan joined Acas in 2009 having previously been a partner in a law firm, as a practising solicitor specialising in Employment law. Susan is a qualified trainer delivering Acas training on both Open Access Events and in-company working out of the North West region and is also part of the Collective Conciliation team based in the Manchester office.

As a teenager in the 1970s my school had a clear rule that girls were not allowed to wear shoes with heels over 1inch high, but the same rule did not apply to the boys despite the fact that the platforms that they wore at the time were a definite risk to their health and safety. The justification for the different treatment? That high heels affected girls' pelvic development and would make child birth more painful - true story!

Women now make up 50% of the workforce and we have had four decades of sex discrimination legislation, yet earlier this year a story emerged: "woman sent home from work for refusing to wear heels". When a female worker was sent home for wearing flat shoes, the company sought to justify this by saying that it was in line with "standard industry practice". This prompted an outcry and even an online petition to the Government who responded saying they would work to address "outdated attitudes and practices".

My first reaction was that the public response showed that attitudes in the workplace have finally changed and that employees are judged on their skills, experience and knowledge rather than their appearance and dress sense.

But only a few months later shoes hit the headlines again, this time that bankers who wear brown shoes are being less favourably judged when applying for jobs or promotions. Leaving aside the fact that most commentators assumed that all bankers are men, it is clear that despite the vastly diverse culture that we live in both men and women are still expected to comply with unspoken dress and appearance codes within their workplaces.

But how do we know what is and is not appropriate for the organisation that we work for? There are rarely clear rules... when I started work as a lawyer in the 1980s women were still not allowed to wear trousers to court and I remember being contacted by a judge regarding the appearance of one of our court clerks. While she wore a long skirt, he felt that her lacy cropped top revealing a pierced belly button was just a bit too much for some of his colleagues' sensitivities!

Recent research by Acas - pdf  Dress codes and appearance at work: Body supplements, body modification and aesthetic labour [578kb] - has highlighted that stereotyping is still alive and well in company dress codes, often demonstrating a lack of understanding of both discrimination legislation and the effect that inflexible criteria can have on recruitment and retention of staff.

When drawing up a policy here are some things to consider:

  • What is the image we are trying to project and why?
  • Are we applying the same rules consistently? For example do we insist on men having no piercings but have no similar requirement for women?
  • Do our staff understand what our culture is and why we need them to dress in a particular way?
  • What do our staff think? Some staff welcome guidance on what to wear, others see it as overbearing management.

However, in a world where a google search for "Teresa May + kitten heels" produces nearly 25,000 results we may still have some way to go to address the nation's fascination with shoes.

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