The heel-ing process Article icon

The When PwC was caught out by a contractor’s dress guidelines, it realised it had to act to reflect the progressive nature of its employment policies

On 7 December 2016, Nicola Thorp, an actress employed by corporate reception services provider Portico, turned up for work at the London headquarters of PwC. Thorp had been working for Portico for several months, and had signed an agreement to abide by its dress guidelines, which covered everything from the shade of nail polish she could wear to the height of a shoe’s heels.

On this particular day, however, 27-year-old Thorp was wearing flat shoes. Her supervisor, who was also employed by Portico, pointed out that Thorp was required to wear shoes with a two to four inch heel.

Thorp responded that the request was discriminatory.  She claims her supervisor laughed and requested she immediately buy a pair of heels. Thorp refused and was sent home without pay.

The contretemps happened in PwC’s reception but it was only when a journalist from the Evening Standard called the following May that the professional services firm learned what had occurred, and that Thorp had launched a petition calling for the law to be changed so that businesses can no longer force women to wear heels at work.

PwC’s first response was a reasonably formal one. ‘PwC outsources its front of house and reception services to a third-party supplier. We first became aware of this matter on 10 May, some five months after the issue arose. The dress code referenced in the article is not a PwC policy,’ it said.

Portico’s initial response was similarly formal. ‘In line with industry standard practice, we have personal appearance guidelines across many of our corporate locations. These policies ensure staff are dressed consistently and include recommendations for appropriate style of footwear for the role.’

But Thorp was young, eloquent and passionate, and the story captured the public’s imagination. ‘All nationals and broadcasters picked it up. The story ran for seven days,’ says Jamie Harley, UK head of media relations at PwC. ‘It was getting a lot of coverage, some of which said the company was right to impose a uniform, some that it was not.’

Many overseas publications, including the Himalayan Times, also ran the story. In the meantime, Thorp’s petition was also gathering supporters. It gained 110,000 signatures within 48 hours of the initial story breaking, and has since exceeded 140,000.  Parliament will consider all petitions that get more than 100,000 signatures for a debate.

Thus it swiftly became apparent that, while PwC was not responsible for the incident, ‘it was our problem. It happened under our roof. We got an awful lot of calls’, adds Harley. In retrospect, the company felt that ‘the initial statement did not reflect us as a business’.

PwC’s employees were also upset by the incident. ‘A lot of our people sympathised with the sentiment of the petition. We are a progressive employer,’ he adds. Staff are not required to wear heels, blouses or shirts and ties.

‘It is down to the individual to use their own judgment. If they are working on site at a bank, they might be required to dress more formally than if they’re working on site at a media company.’

PwC raised the issue with Portico, asking the company to review its policy. Within 48 hours, Portico announced that it would remove the requirement for female staff to wear heels, and was reviewing other aspects of its appearance policy to ensure it was in line with a modern workplace.

PwC’s media relations and social media team started to work together to develop a more appropriate response to the situation, and to get across the firm’s story and emphasise that it did not endorse the heels policy.

‘We debated about an opinion piece by our head of people Gaenor Bagley and trying to land that. We debated about where it might be placed but in the end we decided to host the piece ourselves,’ explains Harley.

Bagley was also filmed speaking about the issue. The piece, Stepping up – what a pair of heels has taught us, by Bagley, who is a board member at PwC, recognised that equality in the workplace has come a long way since the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, but that Thorp’s petition had served as a stark reminder that there is still a long way to go.

‘Many people in my organisation, including myself, support the sentiments behind the petition, because any form of inequality is unacceptable,’ she said. The article also apologised to Thorp, and recognised that the incident was ‘embarrassing’ for a business that ‘places diversity at the heart of our organisation’.

Bagley added that, while PwC had worked with suppliers to make sure that they matched its sustainability aspirations, ‘we have learned the hard way that it is critical that the employment policies and values of our supply chain reflect our own. We are reviewing our suppliers’ employment policies in detail as a result’.

After highlighting areas in which PwC leads the industry, such as publicly reporting its gender pay gap, setting and publishing gender and ethnicity targets and scrapping UCAS scores as entry criteria for graduates, she added: ‘All of this fades into the background if we don’t pay attention to the finer details that affect people in their working lives.’

‘We encouraged our own people to get Gaenor’s piece out on social media,’ adds Harley. ‘Sajid Javid, the business minister, said it was a commendable response, and it started to offset the negative stories. We realised that our first statement hadn’t conveyed the full story.’

The Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, had also responded to the story. It announced #FawcettFlatsFriday, an initiative encouraging women to tweet pictures of themselves wearing flat shoes.

‘An awful lot of our people were upset by the story, so we encouraged them to get involved with #FawcettFlatsFriday. The story was picked up by the Guardian and The Independent,’ says Harley. ‘It was a quite human way to show our values.’

He adds: ‘We were probably too defensive with our first response, because we had been caught on the front foot. We got the first enquiry late on an afternoon, and we had to do some fact finding.’ It took just 24 hours to realise that the ‘corporate approach’ had been the wrong one.

‘We are an employer that does care, and we had to reposition ourselves to show that we do take these issues seriously. We also recognised that we have a lot of people on social media that can get behind us and help to tell our story.’

But it also made PwC aware that, while it can prepare for certain risks and threats to its reputation that are deemed quite likely to occur, it is the unexpected incidents that can cause most problems.

‘We have started a review of all of our suppliers and contractors just to make sure that all of them have policies in place that are aligned with our policies,’ says Harley. ‘It is not just what you do as a firm but it is every single interaction that counts.’