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  • David Sharp
  • 13 May 2016
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Brought to heel

I asked my colleagues in International Workplace’s employment relations team whether they would like to step up to defend the boss of the company that had very publicly been admonished for sending home an employee – without pay – who refused to wear high heels at work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them wanted to take up the challenge.

The company in question is Portico, which describes itself as a specialist provider of high quality, tailored front and back of house guest services. It’s an FM business, which is why I was particularly interested, but as in many outsourcing situations, you’d be forgiven for thinking the culprit was PwC, Portico’s client. I’m sure they’re not very pleased about it.

It further piqued my interest because, like many of us in the FM industry, I know Portico’s MD Simon Pratt. He presented to the panel of judges I was leading when Portico entered the BIFM Awards in 2014. We were impressed enough with their entry to shortlist them as a finalist in the Learning and Career Development Award that year.

Just a day after Nicola Thorp – the employee in question – went public with her criticism of the firm, Simon, Portico (and PwC) were all over the news like a rash. In the trashy and serious papers, on TV, radio and online. Even my step-sister made her views about Portico known to her Facebook friends (me among them), urging us to sign the petition to ban employers from forcing people to wear high heels to work.

Portico strikes me as a really good company to work for. They are a ‘people’ business, in that the service they provide to clients is totally reliant on the ability and performance of the people they implant into the client business. They need to (and do) train them really well, and I’ve seen both first hand and from testimonials how much some of the people who work there love the company. They have a prestigious client list, so presumably the corporations they provide services to rate them equally highly.

I don’t know Simon well, but I do think it’s likely if he’d been there himself when Nicola complained about not wanting to wear heels he would have been far more flexible in his response. I thought he and Portico acted quickly and professionally to deal with a situation that was getting rapidly out of hand.

So in as far as all that goes I have a degree of sympathy for Simon, who did what MD’s have to do and fronted up for something that wasn’t directly of his own doing. I sincerely hope that the partnership required to deliver a successfully outsourced FM service to their client is strong enough to survive the backlash.

Policy dilemmas

Any organisation that is a service provider to another business – and I include my own company in this – will inevitably have the reputation of its client’s brand at heart. When companies look to buy these services from you, and their buyers look you in the eye, one of the unspoken questions they are always thinking is: ‘Do I really trust you to look after me and my company’s reputation?’.

All businesses have to have policies of one kind or another, and I am also sympathetic in their need to draft, implement and constantly review them. The whole point about policies is that they make things clear to everyone in advance: they turn the grey into black and white. In the process, they can all too often corrupt common sense – but in the corporate world this is seen as less of a disadvantage than the lack of clarity that would exist if no such policies were to exist at all.  

Dress codes bring the black and white into relief in the most colourful way. Some years ago in our office, a relaxed dress code during the hot summer months was intended to allow people to dress in shorts and sandals if they wanted – this was interpreted by one person as swimming shorts and flip flops, which was not 'the plan'. The dress code was subsequently updated to specifically ban swimming shorts and flip flops (even with pictures as to how the latter differ from sandals!).

There will be some who ask: does it matter?

To a company like Portico, and to its client, yes it does matter. They do need to have policies that ensure they can deliver a consistent standard of service to an agreed specification. As soon as you specify the content of a policy, as a company you are forced to commit to it. Yes, you can revise it - but the live policy is the one that applies now. Your company does its work through your policies: therefore they say something about you. And in the FM business, about your client too.

The high heel dress code for a client like PwC is obviously plain daft which is why, and understandably so, no one on my team would be willing to defend it. Do you think – had Portico been led by a female MD – a more appropriate dress code might not have been chosen in the first place? Are views like this – which appear to be commonly held – just as sexist as the offensive policy in the first place?

Of course, these things shouldn’t matter. But they do remind us that in normal day-to-day life, everyone has an opinion, and not everyone agrees. The issue isn’t going to go away quickly for Portico whose newly revised dress code still, according to an article in the Financial Times, requires women to apply a minimum of five different types of cosmetics that must be ‘worn at all times and regularly reapplied’. Seriously?

It’s a less catchy one for starting a petition, but the same force of argument (and dismay) will apply.

I certainly don’t want to trivialise the experience Nicola Thorp went through, which has been abhorred by every single person (male and female) I have spoken to about it. I would object hugely to someone sending me home for wearing the wrong shoes (even more so if there was a connotation they weren’t ‘sexy’ enough).

If anything, Nicola has come out of the situation well, appearing just the sort of individual you’d want to hire: calm, balanced, confident, a good communicator. Good luck to her for standing her ground.

I should point out Portico aren’t clients of ours. Now, like any business they will need to continue to grapple with getting the balance right between consistency and clarity (the black and white) and common sense (the grey). It’s a difficult task, and while they have clearly got it wrong this time, I hope that trial by media does not distort the bigger picture of the very good work that both they and the FM industry do for their corporate clients.

Opportunity knocks

If anything, as has been pointed out to me, what this furore has done is to spark a debate around the real issue – and it’s not just about high heeled shoes. For companies in the guest services sector, it’s about what they really think is important when it comes to representing their clients through the personnel they appoint and the behaviours and appearance they expect of them.

For Portico, I hope they see it as a major opportunity to lead the way in the FM sector so that, in one of my favourite sayings, good comes from bad. With my human resources hat on, I hope it also shows that good employment relations practice can play a positive role in business, rather than being a defensive or reactive discipline designed only to keep people out of the courts.

Thanks to my colleagues who’ve shared their opinions with me, not all of which are reflected here. I’d be interested to hear your views, please email me at david.sharp@internationalworkplace.com or tweet @Look_Sharp.

David Sharp is Managing Director of International Workplace, a training and consultancy business advising clients on the regulation of the workplace.