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When the shoes don’t fit – is your business guilty of workplace discrimination?

In most industries the days of wearing a suit and tie to work are long gone. Even in large international corporate consultancies the norm is generally smart casual, such as a collared shirt for men Workplace Discriminationwith long pants. Often employees are given some leeway and allowed to express their personality in their dress, especially in creative industries such marketing or programming, but is this a double edged sword? Do people get judged more harshly if they dress differently and do employers have a right to dictate what people should wear to work?

What defines workplace discrimination?

In a recent BBC article it asked the question if it was workplace discrimination to insist that women need to wear high heels. Some companies have policies that ban bright nail polish or insist that tattoos are covered. Is this acceptable or should personal expression be allowed?

According to the law, companies need to be able to justify their reasons for specific dress codes. For example an airline may insist that hostesses have their hair neatly tied up if it is long. This is justifiable because it is both practical – working in a confined space, and hygenic – as they are serving food. But office based professions may have a harder time enforcing dress code rules, especially when it is gender specific, because if bias can be proven, then companies could find themselves in hot water.

When workplace discrimination is detrimental?

Aside from lawsuits, sometimes bias could simply hinder a company’s growth and development. For example: Conservative thinkers may assume that someone with tattoos isn’t as intelligent or wouldn’t fit into a corporate environment when they could be the ideal candidate with just the right skill set for the job. The fact that they have tattoos has no impact at all on their ability to do the job well.

Similarly, high heels have proven negative effects on health, causing spinal discomfort and even injuries in the long term. They also increase the risks of workplace accidents. Companies insisting that women wear high heels are not only increasing their own liability risk, they are also inadvertently discriminating based on gender. If men aren’t expected to wear high heels, why should women?

Why allowing individual expression can be good for business?

Restrictive dress policies, other than when necessary for health and safety reasons, are often counterproductive. What do they really achieve? Other than stifling creative thinking and reducing employee engagement. Nobody wants to be just another number in an organisation. They want to be recognized for who they are and what they can do, regardless how they look or dress.
Many creative companies are led by people who like to break convention, even wearing shorts and t-shirts or crazy colours and designs to the office, because to them what you wear doesn’t matter. They just want to know you can do the job. Isn’t it time to chuck workplace discrimination and conservative bias out the window and instead foster a company culture that allows individuals to be themselves, so that they can excel in their working environment and help you grow the business.

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