As offices around the United States adopt increasingly informal dress codes, fewer women are showing up to work in high heels than ever before. In fact, in 2016 the Wall Street Journal reported that big banking company J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. — known for its suited-up staff — began letting employees wear business-casual outfits.
But some organizations may still have more formal dress codes that mandate high heels, despite women’s concerns about discomfort. High heel requirements in the workplace have spurred legislative discussion across the globe. Last year in September, the Philippines became the first Asian country to formally ban the practice, while a similar legislative proposal was struck down in Great Britain last year.
While some companies may have policies preventing a high heel requirement, others may not, making the issue a complicated one. To get some insight, FN looked to etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer J.D., founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, for tips on what to do if an employer asks you to wear high heels to work. Based in Austin, Texas, Schweitzer advises and trains professionals in cross-cultural and international protocol.
Here are her tips:
How should you respond if your manager asks you to wear high heels to work?
This has become a controversial topic in many cultures and countries worldwide. Women and human resources professionals are pushing back against this requirement. Legislators are introducing bills opposing the workplace high heel mandate.
In Asia, HR and workplace policies requiring women to wear high heels are common. In 2017, the Philippines was the first Asian country to ban the mandatory wearing of high heels at work.
If your manager asks you to wear high heels, be respectful if you appreciate and need your job. It’s wise to respond by doing some quiet research: What does your written organizational or HR policy state? Look online or inquire discreetly with HR.
Is your parent company based in Asia? Many Asian companies require females to wear high heels as part of the dress code, and this may be the case in your situation. If not, then discuss it with your manager, request a transfer, go to HR, or look for a new job.
In the Philippines, the new ordinance defines high heels as shoes with narrow and pointed heels taller than 1 inch. Shoes with taller heels may still be worn; however, the shoe must have a wide wedge.
What if your company dress code policy includes high heels — what should you do if you’re against the policy because of a difference in opinion rather than an issue related to comfort?
If the company policy requires high heels, read it carefully for exceptions, waivers, health exemptions, heel height/wedge specifications.
If you disagree with the policy, visit with HR about the policy. Realistically consider all of your options.
After doing these things, do an objective self-assessment and ask yourself these questions:
Is it time for you to make a career move? Have you reached the top of the ladder in this organization?
Is this an organizational culture where you can thrive? Or do you need a different culture that empowers women?
Are you close friends with a national or state senator or legislator who may take up the cause?
Do you want to take up the cause or spend your time and energy on positive projects?
If a manager or executive wants women to appear in heels at work, how should that executive approach his/her employee about this topic?
There are several options. It’s important to treat all employees fairly. If management wants to implement or enforce this policy, then it’s best to provide it in writing and provide a copy to each employee.
This can be done during company training, or a team meeting, with an explanation of the basis for the policy.
Allow plenty of time for Q&A.
Expect plenty of push-back from both male and female employees.
If someone isn’t dressed to an employer’s standard and is asked to dress differently, how do you determine whether or not it’s a reasonable request?
Depending on the geographic region, organizational culture, clients, and business customs, both men and women are — and have been — asked to dress differently. We are hired to conduct business etiquette sessions about this on a weekly basis.
Although U.S. office culture has increasingly become more informal, along with workplace wardrobe, global organizations tend to be more formal.
Many managers and supervisors require a certain level of office wardrobe professionalism not only because clients, customers, and business associates stop in for appointments; but also because studies reveal workers have more self-confidence and perform better when dressed more formally. If the manager’s request is based on policy, organizational culture, potential or scheduled client meeting, or just business preference these are valid reasons.
How can you tell if the request is inappropriate?
If the written professional wardrobe policy applies across the board to all male and female employees equally, you can tell. If an unwritten policy is applied to one female who is singled out by the manager and it is not applied to other employees, then a question arises.
You can tell if it is inappropriate because the manager may do inappropriate things in connection with the request like use “elevator eyes” to look the female up and down from head to toe, wink, use a suggestive tone, hold eye contact for too long, or use other sexually inappropriate body language.
Many employees (male and female) realize they may not be on their “A-game” or dressing professionally. So when the request to “dress better” or “wear their hair differently” comes in, they comply without complaint. We all go through phases when we let go a bit.
With contributions by Charlie Carballo
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