An employee who was sent home over the length of her dress has successfully sued her employer for harassment after stating she was ‘body shamed’.
Levinna Ola claimed that during her employment as a pharmacy assistant at King's College Hospital in London, she was sent home by bosses for breaching the NHS trust’s dress code guidelines on “revealing clothing” and was described as having “issues of short skirtness” after wearing a skirt that was three inches above her knees.
An employment tribunal heard evidence that Ola was subjected to hurtful comments about her appearance from co-workers, one of whom reportedly said they “would not have the guts to pull off” Ola’s clothing choices.
She told the tribunal she was “traumatised, embarrassed and degraded” by such comments, adding that she felt the decision to send her home had “violated her dignity.”
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Ola claimed that male colleagues who violated the Trust’s dress code - for example, wearing jeans to work - had not been sent home like her, instead simply being spoken to.
The tribunal heard that Ola’s manager, Selina Quainoo, informed Ola that colleagues had complained that they “did not like her style of dressing” and that one manager was “unable to concentrate” due to it.
It was soon after this encounter that Ola wore the short dress to work, and was subsequently sent home as her outfit was deemed “inappropriate for work.”
In her conclusion, employment judge Christine Macey, said: “It is more likely for a woman to be subjected to comments about her body shape, whether that be a reference to her height or weight.”
The judge also said that comments made by Ola's bosses were an example of body shaming, and amounted to sex-related harassment.
Ola’s compensation award will be decided at a later date.
Dress codes and professionalism – a match no longer working?
The history of dress codes in the workplace in the UK has evolved over time, reflecting changes in societal norms, fashion trends, and corporate culture. In the early 20th century, dress codes in the workplace were quite formal and conservative.
Men typically wore suits, ties, and hats, while women wore dresses or skirts and blouses. After World War II, there was a relaxation of dress codes in many workplaces as society became more casual.
In the 80s, we saw a return to more formal dress codes in many workplaces, especially in corporate settings. Power suits with shoulder pads became fashionable for both men and women.
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Into the 90s and 2000s, there was a shift again - a move towards business casual attire in many offices, with people wearing khakis, polo shirts, and dress shoes. This trend continued into the early 2000s. Some tech companies in the UK, particularly in Silicon Roundabout (London's tech hub), adopted very casual dress codes, with employees wearing jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies.
And then we reach the Covid pandemic. The total work-from-home experience in lockdown where, suddenly, dress codes went out the window. With more employees working from home post-pandemic, dress codes became even more relaxed, with many people opting for comfortable clothing. Adding in the understanding and support of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and it's safe to say dress codes are no longer 'suit and tie' or 'skirt and heels'.
Surprisingly to some, a survey by Instantprint recently found that 30% of respondents like dress codes - but think they could be more flexible/less strict. Only 7% of respondents spend £100 - £150 on workwear since the cost of living crisis, another nod to the idea that pre-loved, charity, vintage and second-hand can be the answer to a professional and individual work wardrobe.
It brings us to the question of whether dress code goes hand in hand with professionalism, or whether self-expression through clothes is more forward-thinking.
Sara Chandran, Founder of business consultancy Fresh and Fearless notes that dress code is often seen as part of being or appearing professional - which is something that's shifting in itself. “Professionalism is a tool for shaming individuals into assimilating into a dominant culture and suppressing their true selves to operate under what society considers 'normal' and appropriate for a productive work environment," she argues.
"Workplace norms in Western society have typically benefitted and privileged certain groups of people, particularly cis-gender, white, non-disabled, neurotypical and hetero-normative men. Professionalism prescribes how to act within the confines of our identities, often reducing us to outdated customs and traditions."
"As leaders, we need to investigate if gender norms shape our dress codes and intensely focus on women, especially those with intersecting identities of race, size and class. People with neurodivergent conditions may experience sensory sensitivities, and rigid dress codes can mean working in uncomfortable clothing, impacting their work performance. If we also look at professionalism as a behaviour, organisations can be strict in their expectations regarding how, when, where and what times employees should work.
“This closed mindset means many employees struggle as they force themselves to fit in a mould incongruent with who they are—a foolproof recipe for burnout and high turnover. This expectation of our people at work completely dismisses and overlooks the diversity in how we can show up as our best selves. Professionalism must be unpacked and understood for its stringent ways of enforcing outdated assumptions about a productive workplace.”