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On High Heels And Corporate Professionalism

Posted on January 27, 2017 at 11:40 AM

Yes, if you put 'high heels' in a headline in 2017, you are likely to draw more hits than if you put in 'inequality.' Call it the times we live in.

This post three days ago by me on Forbes High Heels And Workplace Dress Codes: Urgent Action Needed, Say UK MPs  has had - well, you can just about see here (at time of writing now) 205,705 views. The headline was edited to remove the quotes: it is actually the title of the report - rather than me being clever with headlines.

I would like to believe the content is also the reason it is whizzing around. But I don't think PwC is very pleased, although the clarification is there in parentheses: "Nicola Thorp had a job as a receptionist at PwC, one of the Big Four accountancy firms, when she was sent home in December 2015 without pay, for not wearing heels. (Her employer was not PwC itself but Portico, a personnel firm, which maintained the dress code in question.)

So how does it work then, this ducking by big firms behind their outsourced employers ? It didn't do Sports Direct much good. 

This may seem a frivolous comparison, to lump 'dress code' with 'Victorian working practices', but I don't think it is. It's all about accountablilty - throughout the supply chain, and ending all the way at the top, with specific individuals..

Elevate it to another level, and you have the excellent argument made by John Kay (which should be made by far more people and heard far more often) : Personal liability is the means of deterring repeat offences of corporate crime.

It's all about liability, which presumes making it your business to know how your business is being run.

Instead, large businesses - and large professional firms in particular-  often act in siloes around the organisation, leaving hapless PRs and corporate communication departments to try and mop up any damage when some of their working practices hit the public eye.

The UK government report says: "The dress code which gave rise to this petition had been in place for eight or nine years. Portico had not taken advice about the legality of this dress code, either on its introduction or when it last reviewed the dress code in 2014. Questioned about the rationale for the strict dress code, Simon Pratt (Managing Director of Portico) explained that "the market, and the industry itself, has driven to standards to date."(my emphasis)

Ah yes - with all its talk about the importance of diversity, did senior people at PwC ever look at their receptionists and wonder why they all looked so similar in appearance ? Some professional consultancies go out of their way to achieve that - isn't it called 'branding' ? Disconnects everywhere....and watch this space for more on that subject later.

I leave you with two thoughts to continue this debate beyond the 'such dress codes are sexist' argument.

Earlier this week The International Bar Association (IBA) launched a global investigation into the reasons why so many women lawyers leave law firms, and on occasion the legal profession entirely. Its Legal Policy & Research Unit (LPRU) says it "seeks to secure information on the professional barriers experienced by women in the legal profession."

'Women leaving law firms to the degree at which they are presently doing is very worrying. This specific issue lies within the broader serious problem of a major lack of diversity in the legal profession, particularly within senior roles" said Isabel Bueno, Chair of the IBA Women Lawyers' Interest Group.

Before you scoff - I am not saying the professional barriers are high heels. But I think all professional firms would do well to take  a good, long hard look at their culture, particularly amid generational change.

When you look at the research done by the Social Mobility Commission in its report just out (also covered by me yesterday on Forbes), it's worth noting that "access to Britain’s professions remain dominated by those from more privileged backgrounds."

"But even when people from working class backgrounds manage to break into a professional career they face an earnings penalty compared to colleagues who come from better-off backgrounds...women and ethnic minorities face a 'double' disadvantage in earnings'" says the report.

'Privilege' is defined as having special rights and advantages. But being seen as 'privileged' is also all about perception, and that involves how you speak, and also how you choose to dress.

There's no denying it. "This unprecedented research provides powerful new evidence that Britain remains a deeply elitist society" said the Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobiility Commission, on the launch of this report.

Action on that includes businesses looking hard at their recruitment and advancement policies. If they also take the time to consider the extent to which high heels are essential or appropriate to do a professional job, it will be no bad thing.

All the signs seem to point to the fact that harnessing and managing individual freedom is increasingly going to be an essential component of business success in these times of rapid change.

So here's a pithy quote from British historian Christopher Hill (Century of Revolution).

"Only very slowly and of late have men come to realize that unless freedom is universal it is only extended privilege."


Categories: Communication, Engagement, Accountability