Blog: Stiletto Stand-off

Joanne Sefton, Specialist Employment Lawyer at Menzies Law

You’ve got to admire Nicola Thorp, the receptionist at the heart of the PWC high-heels furore that is momentarily distracting the column-writers from Brexit for five minutes. She didn’t want to spend a nine-hour shift escorting people to and from meeting rooms in heels, so she left and kicked up a stink about it. Good for her.

As a few readers may know, I’ve got a reputation as a bit of a heels devotee. As someone who struggles to scrape over the 5 foot marker without artificial assistance, I reckon I’ve got an excuse. There’s no rule about wearing them in court, in a client meeting or in a seminar but, for me personally, it’s part of the professional impression I want to project. Plus it’s nice to be able to see over the lectern!

That said, it’s clear that a requirement to wear minimum 2-inch heels does have a health impact, particularly where it is happening on a daily basis, and in a job which involves spending significant time on ones feet. Despite the rather mealy-mouthed approach in case law, which establishes only that dress codes must require ‘equivalent standards of smartness’, I’d suggest most clear-thinking people would see it as pretty blatantly discriminatory too.

So why do I feel a little squeamish about banning the rule, as Miss Thorp’s petition would have us do?

I think it comes down to this. The rule, unsatisfactory as it may be on various levels, is clear. What you have to do to comply is obvious. I understand from the reports that Miss Thorp was given the opportunity to go and buy a pair of heels and return to work. I don’t criticise her for a minute for deciding not to, but there is something to be said for the choice being there.

As things stand now, certain employers – high-end retailers and financial institutions included – are going to want their staff to project a particular image. (Interesting, high heels were apparently banned as too ‘common’ in equivalent workplaces in previous decades. What goes around comes around.)  If you Google the 2014 ET case of Whiterod v Karen Millen you’ll get an interesting insight into the tension that can arise. If public-relations management drives PWC (and the agency who actually hired the receptionists in this case) to abandon express footwear policies then is there not a danger of ‘unwritten’ rules continuing to be applied? For a casual workforce with few employment rights, it’s all too easy for an individual to find themselves out of a job without being given reasons for why their face didn’t fit.

Unwritten rules and norms have a tendency to discriminate against the more vulnerable in society – younger people just joining the workforce, those from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds and those from non-mainstream cultures. Some of them, in Miss Thorp’s shoes, might rather be given the option to buy the heels and come back.

Joanne Sefton
Barrister, Menzies Law

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Joanne Sefton, Specialist Employment Lawyer at Menzies Law