Nicola Thorp can’t have imagined her first day working as a receptionist at PwC would have been so eventful. Having arrived in a pair of flat shoes, she was told by Portico, the outsourcing agency that she needed to wear 2-4 inch heels, as outlined in the company’s ‘appearance guidelines’. Clearly unimpressed with her employer’s demands, she gathered over 150,000 signatures calling on the British government to ban employers enforcing a high heel dress code on their female staff.
Thorp’s experience is just one of several high-profile incidents around workplace dress codes in recent times. It demonstrates that the concept of a dress code, when open to interpretation, has increasing potential to discriminate. It appears companies are moving away from the traditional dress code policy, possibly to avoid these potential discrimination issues, but also, in keeping with the adult-to-adult relationships that are more prevalent in the modern workplace. Organisations don’t necessarily feel that they need to spell these things out for their employees anymore, and that common sense will prevail in relation to what to wear to work. In any case, workplace style has evolved so much in recent years; informal business casual is universally accepted and beards and tattoos are no longer just the preserve of pirates and rock stars.
With this growing trend towards a more relaxed dress code, yesterday’s ruling by the European Court of Justice may have raised a few eyebrows. The case in question referred to a Receptionist, fired from G4S in Belgium for wearing her headscarf to work. The ECJ found that it is permissible to ban headscarves or other obvious religious symbols in if a company fairly applies a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to ‘project an image of political and religious neutrality’. In contrast, another ruling by the ECJ found that a French company was wrong to dismiss a woman for wearing a headscarf because a customer complained about it. So, the court’s distinction is clear: if the objection is on the grounds of a breach of a consistent, companywide policy to promote neutrality, dismissal is fair. If it is on foot of a customer complaint, it is not. While this distinction, if not the G4S decision, seems pragmatic, the practical implication is anything but. Not only does the attempt to promote neutrality end up doing the exact opposite; the decision is at odds with much hard-fought equality legislation. And as this is a ruling that, for the moment, only impacts Muslim women, it creates yet another obstacle to gender equality in the workplace.
It will be interesting to see the implications of this ruling across Europe over time. My advice to companies is to look past the dress code and let the employee’s performance do the talking. If they are good at their job it doesn’t matter that they wear a grey t shirt and jeans to work every day. Hey, if it works for Mark Zuckerberg…