Hair-raising tales of high-heel dress codes

You might have been forgiven for thinking that Nicola Thorp had just stepped out of the Tardis, direct from a challenging sojourn in the era of Mad Men.

The 27-year-old temporary receptionist – and bit-part actress with Doctor Who on her resume – made international headlines last week after being sent home from a London temp job without pay for refusing to replace her flat shoes with high heels.

Rather than wear the consequences of her agency’s apparently antiquated dress code, she decided to hit back, launching a petition calling for Britain to make it illegal for firms to require women to wear high heels at work.

More than 120,000 signatures have since been collected – well above the threshold of 100,000 required to oblige Parliament to consider a debate on the subject.

The incident has sparked some discussion here in Australia, where the consensus has been that a similar directive by an employer would likely breach our discrimination laws. As the Australian Human Rights Commission explains, employers need to ensure that any dress code they implement does not amount to discrimination:

“Rules regarding dress could be discriminatory if they single out some employees for different treatment because of their background or certain personal characteristics.

“Example: An employer’s dress code requires female employees to wear revealing clothing but this does not apply to male employees. This could be sex discrimination.”

One of the more interesting relevant local cases of recent years concerned a male flight attendant’s battle to wear his hair long, contrary to his employer’s personal grooming manual, known as The Look Book.

The employee had originally notified the airline in July 2010 that he would not be complying with The Look Book’s requirements on religious grounds, but he ultimately admitted that he needed to grow his hair as a method of coping with a body-image disorder – a contention he backed on five separate occasions with supporting medical certificates.

Never accepting that the certificates adequately explained the attendant’s refusal to cut his hair, the airline grounded him in April 2011. A return to the skies in July of that year – when he was allowed to conceal his hair beneath a wig – only delayed his sacking until October. The grounds for his dismissal included inadequate medical evidence, persistent refusal to conform to The Look Book (which did not expressly permit or forbid the wearing of a wig), and a rather poorly received attempt by the employee to seek the intervention of the airline’s Chief Executive…

On subsequent unfair dismissal proceedings, the Fair Work Commission determined in the employee’s favour – a decision confirmed on appeal. It found that the employee did provide the medical information the company required, and that he did ultimately intend to comply with The Look Book.

During the 15-month saga leading up to his dismissal, the employee had proposed he wear his hair in a neatly slicked-back ponytail – a suggestion supported by one of his medical certificates. While he was refused, The Look Book’s directives for female staff suggest that a ponytail is “sleek, practical and shows off healthy hair to its full advantage”.

One can only assume that the re-instated flight attendant is now greeting passengers with a similarly sleek, practical and healthy appearance.

Does your workplace enforce a strict dress code or ‘grooming policy’? Share your experiences and start a conversation by leaving a comment below.

Those seeking further information or advice on this issue should contact Ai Group Workplace Lawyers.

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Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

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