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Dress Code or Discrimination?

Albeit, factory work is a different story, but still, women haven't always had to wear heels to work. Image credit of Wikimedia Commons.

Today the internet is abuzz with the story of a London woman who was asked to go home without pay when she showed up to her new office wearing flats instead of heels. According to her manager, 2–4 in. heels are required as part of a professional dress code.

The young woman, Nicola Thorp, protested asking if men were held to the same standard, and then claimed that wearing heels for the duration of her nine hour shift would make her job prohibitively uncomfortable.

In general the courts uphold the rights of employers to require and enforce a dress code, it is also acceptable to have different dress requirements for men and women as long as both sexes are held to similar grooming standards.

What is not acceptable, according to U.S. law at least, is holding the sexes to different dress standards or establishing a dress code that causes an undue burden for employees. For example an employer cannot allow men in the office to dress casually while requiring professional attire from the women.

Nor can an employer enforce a dress code that makes the workplace less safe, obvious examples include factory work where loose sleeves and hair can be caught in machinery. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to the dress code for people in special circumstances. Employees whose beliefs require them to wear a hijab or yarmulke must be accommodated unless their head wear is a safety concern.

Nothing about Thorp's employer's dress code is illegal or discriminatory in the U.S. or England, but maybe that's part of the problem. This issue is reminiscent of the debate over whether or not women should be allowed to wear pants to work, something that seems likes a non-issue today. But the state of California does have specific language within its Fair Housing and Employment Act protecting the right of women to wear pants to work if they want. Perhaps, in the near future, this issue of high heels will look just as obvious as the pants issue.

As always, thank you for reading. If you have a legal inquiry, or a workplace dispute, then don't hesitate to contact one of our employment lawyers today.

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