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High heels or the highway: Does your dress code policy need a makeover?

high heelsRecent developments in British Columbia, Ontario, and the United Kingdom, have refocused attention on dress codes—particularly appropriate footwear requirements—and with it, concerns about occupational health and safety, gender–equality, and other human rights. Because this is 2017, not the 1800s, it may be difficult to process the frequency with which many workplaces still require women to wear high heels or dress in other sexualized or gender–specific ways.

British Columbia (BC)

In an April 7, 2017 press release found here, the BC government announced the fulfillment of its promise to ban mandatory high heels in the workplace. The change was effected by amendments to the footwear provisions in section 8.22 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations to the Workers Compensation Act, found here.

Among the changes, workplaces must consider the potential for musculoskeletal injury in their assessment of appropriate footwear for their workplaces. Musculoskeletal damage is a well-documented side-effect of wearing high heels over a prolonged period of time. (See page 8 of the Report referenced below).

WorkSafeBC’s OHS Guideline G8.22(2.1) High heels, complement the new provisions (read the Guideline here).

Ontario

Ontario’s Human Rights Commission recently issued an OHRC Policy Position on Sexualized and Gender-specific Dress Codes (the “Policy Position”). The Policy Position examines the requirement for women to wear high heels or dress in other sexualized or gender-specific ways at work. The Policy Position recommends that employers review their dress code policies as part of their commitment to meeting obligations in the September 8, 2016 changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. These changes are designed to prevent and respond to sexual violence. Read the Policy Position here.

The United Kingdom

In December 2015, Ms. Nicola Thorp arrived for work as a temporary receptionist at a Big Four accounting firm in London, on assignment from a staffing agency. Upon arrival, she was told that her flat shoes contravened the staffing agency’s dress code policy mandating heels of between 2 and 4 inches. When she refused to go out and buy a pair of high heels she was sent home without pay.

Ms. Thorp started a petition to spur changes to laws which she believed were not clear enough to discourage employers from enforcing similar footwear policies or other discriminatory dress codes. Her petition quickly garnered public support and led to a 2016 joint inquiry by parliament’s Petitions Committee, and Women and Equalities Committee (the “Inquiry”).

In just one week, the Inquiry received over 730 responses in a web forum. Women shared stories about being forced to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and constantly reapply makeup.

The Inquiry concluded with a published a report, including recommendations to the government. Read its report on High Heels and Workplace Dress Codes (the “Report”) here. The Report is a must-read for eye-opening insight into the impact of wearing high heels, including the health and safety impact on older workers or workers living with disabilities; the strain this creates on the healthcare system; the negative effect on productivity; and the psychological impact of mandatory high heel provisions in dress codes.

The Petitions Committee is a parliamentary committee that considers petitions submitted by the public. Among its powers, and as it did in this instance, it may recommend parliamentary debates about petitions it receives. This could lead to legislative or other changes. Parliament held a debate on March 6, 2017 (you can read the debate transcript here). The government also issued a response to the Report, found here (the “Response”).

The Response did not promise legislative changes, as many had hoped it would. The government concluded that existing laws were adequate. But it did include promises to improve education and awareness, for example, by publishing additional guidance for employers.

Takeaways for employers

Employers should ensure that dress code policies, including appropriate footwear policies, comply with health and safety and human rights law, and generally promote a respectful and harmonious work environment.  Among the questions to ask before implementing any dress code policy:

  1. Does the policy meet legal requirements related to health and safety and human rights, for example?
  2. Is the policy truly necessary? For example, is the policy necessary to project a particular public image or to ensure that employees are easily identifiable? Is it required to ensure that employees are safe from puncture hazards and other safety risks? Is it necessary to ban insignia or other symbols which are generally accepted as offensive?

Apolone Gentles, JD, CPA,CGA, FCCA, Bsc (Hons)

Apolone Gentles is a CPA,CGA and Ontario lawyer and editor with over 20 years of business experience. She has held senior leadership roles in non-profit organizations, leading finance, human resources, information technology and facilities teams. She has also held senior roles in audit and assurance services at a “Big Four” audit firm. Apolone has also lectured in Auditing, Economics and Business at post-secondary schools.

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