Fiona is MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the South East and PI Solicitor at Gray Hooper Holt LLP, Redhill. Fiona shares her experience of the importance of shoes in the workplace and of kit not fit for the office!
Like many others, I was more than a little shocked at the recent news story concerning the temp who was sent home from work for wearing inappropriate (i.e. flat) shoes. She was told that the dress code included wearing shoes with a 2″-4″ heel and was asked to go out and buy a pair. When she refused to do this she was sent home (without pay).
A similar incident happened to me as an articled clerk. I was on my way to a conference with counsel with my principal, with whom I got on well. I was dressed in a smart grey skirt suit, black tights and flat black pumps, with a new black briefcase. Thinking I looked the part, I was taken aback when my principal said “What have you got on your feet?!” “Err … shoes?” was my confused reply. “Well buy some new ones. With a heel”, was his retort. Back in the office I argued my case saying that, as a naturally clumsy person, wearing anything but flat shoes would be a health and safety issue (this was the PI department, after all), citing evidence from my Grandad who regularly remarked that I was so accident prone I could trip over the pattern in the carpet. Whilst flat shoes did not entirely eliminate the risk of taking an unexpected tumble (my scarred knees are testament to that), they did significantly reduce the risk. Was my principal willing to take that chance? He was. Shoes with a heel were grudgingly bought.
Women lawyers of a certain age will recall the ban on women wearing trousers to work, in force until 1995 in the courts. A rule particularly galling for women barristers in front of (invariably) a man in a gown and wig. The “no trousers” issue came to a head in our office in the early nineties when a conveyancing paralegal came into work one day wearing culottes. For the uninitiated, culottes are a women’s trouser “cut to resemble a skirt”, and these did, indeed, look exactly like a skirt. We all thought she was being very clever until the conveyancing partner got wind of it, and she was sent home to change (ah, the pedantry of the lawyer!). She never came back, a reaction the partners didn’t expect, and the rule was sensibly revoked in our office soon after. I might add that these incidents occurred over a quarter of a century ago and I had thought that attitudes had moved on. So it was disappointing to read that women are still being told what they can and cannot wear, to the detriment of their comfort, and possibly, their health.
One of the joys of setting up a practice with a few like-minded others in the mid-nineties, was the fact that we were free of those outmoded and counter-productive rules. We had no dress code in the office, on the basis that we employed grown-ups who would know when it was appropriate to wear a suit. There was only one occasion when this policy was tested. During the 1998 World Cup one of our paralegals came in wearing an England replica strip. It wasn’t the shirt or the trainers we objected to, it was the shorts, socks and shin-pads in-between! It transpired that he was going to play 5-a-side after work and couldn’t be bothered to carry his kit with him and change!