Hopping Mad about High Heels
High heels are a standard fixture in the wardrobes of 78% of adult women in the UK and so wading, or perhaps that should be taking small tentative steps, in to the debate is not without its challenges. The recent case of Nicola Porter who was dismissed for failing to wear high heels has raised some interesting HR issues.
Can a company require its employees to comply to a dress code?
The simple answer is yes. The code must be reasonable and this will always be determined by the context of the company.
Companies are allowed to impose the wearing of gender specific items such as a tie or a skirt and the relevant case law to support this comes from an EAT Appeal decision DWP v Matthew Thompson which ruled that requiring men to wear ties was not necessarily discriminatory.
The case established the right of companies to create dress codes that specified the wearing of specific items of clothing, such as a tie, by members of one sex to promote smartness. The key issue is that the same standard of smartness has to be applied to employees of the other gender.
Can a company require women to wear high heels?
The simple answer is no. The first response from the majority of commentators including me, was that requiring the wearing of high heels shows a very sad, outdated and sexist attitude by the employer and they themselves backed down and agreed it was sexist http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-36272893.
Whilst the accusation of sexism is probably true, the fact that so many women own (and presumably wear) at least one pair of high heels does undermine the general thrust of that argument. In a court there would be a robust legal debate about whether this was or was not indirect sex discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act.
High Heels are dangerous
However, the case against high heels is immeasurably stronger than accusations of indirect sex discrimination. There are 22% of women who don’t own a pair of high heels and a short and totally unscientific survey of my women friends and family indicates that those who don’t own a pair have all worn high heels at some point in their life. This group all expressed a strong antipathy to the pain and discomfort caused by wearing them and would refuse such a request.
Women who object to wearing high heels have a rock solid and undeniable argument about the unsuitable and damaging nature of high heels in their favour when citing the damage to health and the danger of trips and falls that wearing high heels causes.
Vulnerability to claims by employees
The Health and Safety Executive specifically identifies high heels as inappropriate workplace footwear and says:
“Avoid certain footwear, such as open-toed shoes, sandals, flip-flops, high heels and smooth soles, etc.” http://tinyurl.com/HSE-Footware
The medical evidence from the British Medical Journal study into 66 medical studies into the damage caused by high heels is damning. In their study ‘High-heeled shoes and musculoskeletal injuries: a narrative systematic review’ http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/1/e010053.full#sec-17 they concluded that there is strong evidence that high heels are associated with … injury and that high heels cause alterations to the mechanics of walking and affect the bodily structures from the toes to the spine in ways that may be seen as markers of conditions such as osteoarthritis & bunions.
The problems with high heels have not gone unnoticed in the fashion industry itself and in June last year Vogue asked “why have high-heel injuries doubled?” http://tinyurl.com/Vogue-High-Heel-Injuries when they followed up on an American study that demonstrated injuries had gone up from 7,097 in 2002 to 14,140 in 2012.
The American Osteopathic Association have identified the following problems associated with wearing high heels:
- Ingrown toenails
- Irreversible damage to leg tendons
- Nerve damage and bunions
- Overworked or injured leg muscles
- Osteoarthritis of the knee
- Plantar fasciitis and
- Low back pain
Taking everything into consideration the health and safety of your staff out weighs any fashion or brand consideration that your company wishes to portray.
Don’t fall flat on your face
- Provide advice and guidance to staff on sensible footwear
- Check that any staff who choose to wear high heels understand the risks
- Have an overall limit to the height and nature of heel that you permit
- Insist that your female staff wear high heels
- Take sanctions against staff members wearing low heels