High Heels in the Workplace: Can Employers Still Require Women to Wear Them?
May 13, 2016
Unless the employer will impose the same requirement on men, then the answer is no.
Private-sector employers have freedom in regulating their own employees' appearance in the workplace and can generally dictate that employees wear uniforms or clothes that convey a particular image and can even prohibit visible tattoos and most body piercings, so long as they are not religious in nature. However, problems arise when these policies are not enforced evenhandedly amongst both sexes.
Take Nicola Thorp as an example. Ms. Thorp recently gained media attention after she was sent home for not wearing high heels on her first day of work at a financial services company in London. "The supervisor told me that I would be sent home without pay unless I went to the shop and bought a pair of two to four-inch heels," Thorp told the London Evening Standard, Hatty Collier, Receptionist Nicola Thorp 'sent home from PwC office for refusing to wear high heels,' Evening Standard, May 12, 2016. Thorp had been assigned to work as a receptionist and was largely responsible for escorting clients to meeting rooms.
Another example is Nicola Gavins. Gavins shared a photo on social media of a friend's feet bleeding after working a full shift as a waitress, claiming that the restaurant forced its female staff to wear shoes with at least one inch of heel.
Dress codes, grooming requirements, or other appearance-based policies are legally permissible so long as they are enforced in a non-discriminatory fashion. Such policies must not have a disparate impact on any particular protected class regardless of the employer's intention. Where appearance standards clearly apply differently to men and women, they have been held to be prima facie discriminatory under Title VII and permissible only if based on a bona fide occupational qualification, such as safety.
Employers have greater chance of avoiding appearance-based claims if they institute clear appearance policies enforced in a non-discriminatory fashion. If you are in need of a new or revised dress policy for your place of employment, please contact anyone in the Employment Law Practice Group at Heyl Royster for assistance.