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Workplace Dress Codes

David M. Brown

Co-Founder + Partner
April 25, 2022

Workplace dress codes are a tried-and-true way to foster a sense of unity in your workforce, and present a consistent brand image for your organization. That said, they are also a common source of confusion for workers. 

Though legal proceedings related to dress codes are relatively rare, it’s important to consider the purpose and implications of any workplace dress code, and maintain a clear, equitable policy.

 

What Is a Dress Code?

A dress code is any manner of dress that is prescribed through an employer’s policy or directives.

A classic example is a company uniform, which is the norm for many fast food workers, couriers, and hospitality staff.

Dress codes can also be broader, such as an office directive for “business casual” attire, or policies including specific guidelines, like:

  • Button-up shirts only

  • No jeans

  • No sleeveless shirts

  • Knee-length or longer skirts

  • Specific colour schemes

Requirements such as hardhats and steel-toed boots on construction sites, or scrubs in a medical environment, fall more under the umbrella of health and safety. These are not strictly “dress codes” in the sense that we’re discussing here. 

 

Potential Dress Code Issues

From a legal perspective, a big consideration with dress codes is the employer’s duty to accommodate. That is, the requirement for organizations to accommodate employees with characteristics protected under human rights law (up to the point of undue hardship).

An example of this is the 1988 case in which Baltej Dhillon, a Sikh RCMP officer, successfully challenged the RCMP’s dress code which, at the time, required all officers to wear an RCMP hat, and be clean-shaven. As part of his Sikh faith, Dhillon wore a turban and maintained a beard. In response to Dhillon’s complaint, the RCMP updated their dress code policy to accommodate this religious observance.

As elements of his religion, Dhillon’s turban and beard were (and are) protected under Canadian human rights law. Like any organizational policy, a dress code cannot overrule existing human rights statutes (in this case, religious freedoms), as this would constitute discrimination.

Obviously, an employee requesting an accommodation in dress code must be able to prove that their attire is part of a genuinely-held belief. No matter how fervently you support the team, you’ll have a tough time arguing that your Canucks jersey is a religious garment.

Another instance where dress code policies can intersect closely with human rights legislation is when policies vary significantly depending on the worker’s gender.

In the restaurant and bar industry, for example, employers often divide servers by gender. In some of these establishments, men will have a dress code of dress pants and a collared shirt, while female employees will be required to dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way (for example, in cases where women are required to wear heels and a skirt, or to wear a minimum amount of makeup). 

This sexualized dress code creates a unique working condition that is imposed only on women. It may make female servers more vulnerable to sexual harassment by patrons and co-workers. 

Gender-specific dress codes have been found to be discriminatory in Canada, but as yet have not been the subject of a groundswell case such as Dhillon’s with the RCMP. That said, we advise employers in the service industry to consider the implications of these types of “double-standard” dress codes. 

 

How do Dress Codes Translate to Remote Work?

With many workplaces transitioning to remote work models, the legal realities of dress code policies must be weighed against the practical realities. 

Employers are entitled to define their dress codes however they choose (provided those dress codes don’t conflict with existing statutes, as above).

If an employer says that employees must wear professional attire while in the office, they would be within their rights to maintain that policy even if employees shift to remote work. That said, it is questionable to impose a dress code on a worker when that worker is in their own home and not having any direct face-to-face interaction with coworkers or clients.

The key here is that organizations should consider the ultimate purpose of their dress code. A dress code is reasonable when its purpose is to maintain a level of professionalism at the office or present a unified image to clients. When a dress code is imposed purely for the sake of controlling employees, then it becomes less reasonable. Such a dress code would still be legal, but it could also have real negative impacts on employee morale and retention, and workplace culture.

A compromise for remote workers might be to require employees to look presentable and professional if they are, for example, interacting with clients over a video call, but to allow employees to dress comfortably if they’re off camera and in their own homes.

 

How Far Can Employers Go In Enforcing a Dress Code?

If somebody is not compliant with the dress code, then technically it becomes a misconduct issue. 

Not all misconduct is created equal. Not adhering to a company dress code is not the same thing as assault or theft. But it is still a form of misconduct. As with any policy violation, if a worker isn’t following a dress code then the employer should talk to that employee directly, explain exactly how they’ve violated the policy, and give them adequate opportunity to correct the issue. 

If, after being notified, the employee continues to disregard the dress code, then potentially the employer has the right to escalate, up to and including termination. But this kind of ongoing disregard for company policy is likely symptomatic of other misconduct issues.

 

The Bottom Line

When developing any workplace policy, start by asking yourself: “what is the purpose of this policy?”

As mentioned above, if the purpose of a dress code is purely to control your employees, then it’s not a good policy. But if you have a specific company image that you want to project, or if you simply want employees to uphold a certain level of professionalism on the worksite, then that makes more sense, and will probably be a lot easier to enforce. 

It’s also important to set boundaries for when the dress code is in effect, and when it isn’t. If workers are on-site and having in-person client interaction, then it makes sense to have a dress code. If workers are at home and not on camera, then it’s a little harder to justify.

Drafting a dress code or other policy and not sure where to start? Contact Ascent today.