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Viewpoint: Keeping dress codes comfortable

23 June 2016
Viewpoint: Keeping dress codes comfortable

Hospitality staff must look professional, but dress codes need to be reasonable, says Institute of Hospitality chief executive Peter Ducker

While commuting by train or bus, it is a familiar sight to see women changing their footwear. They clearly cannot wait to get out of uncomfortable high heels and slip on a soft pair of trainers. Under current UK employment law, companies are still able to demand that female members of staff wear heels and make-up, but the law may soon change.

One of the biggest news stories last month was about a temping receptionist who was sent home from work after refusing to wear high heels. Nicola Thorp, 27, arrived for her first day at PwC in December in flat shoes but says she was told she had to wear shoes with a 2-4 inch heel. Thorp, who was employed by outsourced reception firm Portico, said she was laughed at when she said the demand was discriminatory.

Since then, Thorp's petition to make it illegal to force female staff to wear make-up and high heels has gathered over 100,000 signatures, meaning MPs must consider it for parliamentary debate. The petition has already attracted the support of MPs. One told The Daily Telegraph: "The idea that in 2016 a woman can be sent home from a professional job for daring to not wear high heels is as preposterous as it is archaic."

Portico, part of WSH, has now changed its policy, adding that "with immediate effect, all our female colleagues can wear plain flat shoes."

What does this tell us about dress codes within our industry? As a graduate trainee manager in the 1970s I wore a morning suit until 6pm and then changed into evening dress. Rules were rules. I thought it was barmy then, and still do.

This takes two forms. A hipster boutique hotel will attract different staff with a different self-image than a starched, deluxe property, and a resort will differ from a city centre hotel, and so on.

Over time, if the character of the business is clearly defined, successful recruitment teams will attract team members who walk the talk. When this happens, rules should no longer need to be enforced, but simply become guidelines.

The second factor is self regulation or peer pressure. In a business I worked in, our call-centre staff could dress as they pleased. Dress was typically smart-casual. A new recruit who arrived in shorts soon modified their dress to conform.

Smart businesses that are clear about their culture and communicate it effectively shouldn't have to build a set of rules around appropriate clothing any more than they should around other personal traits. And if we want to employ people who feel relaxed, professional and comfortable in their roles, then forcing them to wear footwear that they find painful does not make any sense at all.

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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