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Do you agree that workplaces should have a dress code?

Human resources experts agree that employees appreciate knowing your expectations about how they should dress for work-if they exist. However, some managers and employers disagree with dress codes. One of our subscribers wondered what our readers think, so in a recent HRinfodesk poll, we asked, Do you agree that workplaces should have a dress code?

The poll results can’t give a definitive answer to who is right and who is wrong, but they do demonstrate the range of opinions on the matter. Out of 554 respondents, 296 (53 percent) agreed that they should have a dress code. Another 161 (29 percent) believe that a dress code should be implemented because of the type of business and 74 (13 percent) because of the job position. Only 23 (4 percent) disagreed and said no, workplace should not have a dress code.

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What does the law say?

Employers can legally implement a dress code and enforce it. However, a dress code must be reasonable, balancing the legitimate concerns of the employer with the employees’ right to self-expression. One of these concerns is the health and safety of employees. In addition to safety concerns, employers have a legitimate interest in prohibiting dress that detracts from their corporate image or offends customers and at times other employees.

Elements to consider when implementing a dress code

However, a dress code policy addresses elements of an employee’s appearance, which can be harmful to the employer’s image and adversely affect his or her business. The rules must serve a legitimate business purpose and also need to ensure that the policy does not unduly infringe on an individual’s religious or personal rights, and relate to contemporary community standards. Overall, employers can regulate dress code, but they can’t do it in a discriminatory way.

Consider these factors when preparing or reviewing your policy:

  • The dress code must fit your workplace culture
  • Set out both what is appropriate and inappropriate clothing, footwear and jewelry so employees clearly understand what is expected of them. One survey indicated that jogging suits, sweatshirts/sweatpants, shorts, t-shirts with printed slogans, no socks, exposed tattoos, leather sandals without socks, tennis sneakers, jeans, deck shoes, see-through or bare midriff, spandex, short shorts, tube top, halter without jacket, tank top, thong or plastic sandals (flip-flops), leggings, skirts with high slits, miniskirts, leather pants, no hosiery, and culottes were unacceptable by a wide majority of companies (53 to 80 percent)
  • Indicate what is appropriate (acceptable) attire on certain designated days (such as casual Fridays)
  • Be flexible to accommodate changes in fashion, religious observance and belief, and health and safety requirements
  • Prohibit excessive informality, this means having a clear definition of what casual business attire means. According to Melissa Kennedy at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, a more casual level of dress may be encouraged in a creative work environment, whereas more formal business attire may be suitable in a corporate setting
  • Widely publish the policy and make sure all employees and management know about it and understand the consequences of contraventions
  • Include enforceable sanctions in your policy, including that wilful violations of the policy could end up in suspension for the remainder of the workday or sending the employee home to change into suitable attire; apply progressive discipline by clearly indicating the steps that will be taken for repeated violations of the dress code.
  • Apply the policy uniformly; inconsistent enforcement generates complaints and discrimination
  • To avoid any discrimination claim related to your duty to accommodate a need or belief of an employee, ensure that you know why an employee is violating the policy
  • Include in the policy that the dress code also applies at company functions and sponsored events
  • Indicate any prohibition of facial jewellery or if tattoos have to be covered. Courts have indicated that a policy on banning or covering facial jewellery and tattoos is reasonable because of community standards, customer complaints and preference, as legitimate business purposes. If challenged, the employer should be able to justify its decision based on a balancing of the parties’ interests
  • Take care with issues of gender (such as forbidding woman to wear pants or enticing them to wear provocative clothing; fair and/or equal does not mean the same; also the differences must not influence job opportunities or the work environment); race (hairstyles, beard and grooming rules; for example, many black men have beards because of heavy skin irritation (due to sensitive skin) that occurs when they shave; some man grow long hair or beards because of religious beliefs); national origin (rules that prohibit the wearing of clothing more typical of other cultures may violate the law unless they are supported by business necessity); religion (e.g., head coverings); and age (styles of dress of people in their early 20’s vary from those that are 40 and over; new employees that cannot afford business clothes yet)
  • Courts and arbitrators will consider the financial impact a dress code change would have on employees and it is important to write a general statement why your business needs a dress code. Usually dress code policies are upheld when an employer establishes that on the balance of probabilities, the employee’s appearance threatens the employer’s image and may cause a loss of business
  • Consider different dress codes for different categories of employees
  • Consider employees’ daily responsibilities and interactions with colleagues, team members, clients and consultants. Some job groups may need to dress a certain way at certain times, while other job groups need flexibility to dress according to circumstances
  • Decide if you will raise the subject of scent/fragrance (perfume and/or after-shave) because of allergies or other hazards. You could state that excessive use of perfume/cologne or any other type of fragrance is to be avoided; “excessive” will need to be defined
  • Depending on the type of business and to ensure employee safety, indicate certain clothing/footwear/jewellery that are prohibited (gauzy materials, open foot sandals, flip flops)
  • The nature of the business (restaurants, hospitals, shipping, warehouse and food establishments) can also require special job requirements related to grooming such as cleanliness, tying long hair into a bun and net, acceptable footwear, no jewellery, etc.
  • Invite comment from employees and/or their union before enacting the code

You know why most employers get in trouble with dress code policies?

Except for health-related infractions, violations of dress or grooming codes are normally considered minor. Clarification from a manager/supervisor without criticizing the employee’s style usually eliminates any problem or misunderstanding. All dress code policies should provide a mechanism for resolving complaints or disputes concerning the interpretation or violation of the policy.

No dress code can cover all contingencies, so employees must exert a certain amount of judgment in their choice of clothing to wear to work. Managers should also use good judgment to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Not every style blunder should be made into an issue. Although it is tempting, you cannot police personal taste in clothing, for instance unless it can be proven it will damage your business reputation.

A dress code should be set out in writing and provided to employees when they are hired. Courts and arbitrators are more likely to permit an employer to enforce a dress code that is in place at the time of hiring. However, this does not stop an employer from implementing one at any time if a need presents itself.

Educate and train employees on your dress code. All employees should receive human rights training so that they can know and understand their rights in the workplace, and what the employer expect of them.

Training on your dress code policy must be provided and geared to meet the specific needs of employees who are responsible for:

  • complying with policies (all employees)
  • implementing and enforcing policies (managers, supervisors)
  • providing expert advice and support to ensure compliance (human resources)
  • overall human rights strategy (the board, senior management, president or CEO)

Know that it is difficult to dismiss an employee without termination notice or pay in lieu of notice based on a major change in the dress code. Non-compliance with the dress code can result in disciplinary action that could eventually lead to termination of employment if an employee continues to refuse to comply. However, employers should investigate the situation properly and take all of the circumstances into account before making a decision. Enforcing consistently and fairly whatever office dress code you set is key.

Also, employers must remember, they will need to provide accommodation to the point of undue hardship for dress code issues that cannot be addressed through inclusive design.

What is proper business attire?

According to Melissa Kennedy at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, appropriate business-casual attire may include:

  • Blazers
  • Blouses
  • Casual collared shirts, knit tops, sweaters and turtlenecks
  • Golf shirts
  • Jackets
  • Shirt and tie
  • Vests
  • Casual dresses and skirts
  • Tailored walking shorts as part of a suit
  • Capri pants as part of a suit
  • Dress pants
  • Casual pants (dockers, cotton twill, corduroy, khaki type pants)
  • Tailored slacks
  • Dress sandals, loafers/flat shoes

Inappropriate attire may include:

  • Anything that is overly revealing
  • Sports jerseys
  • Sweatshirts
  • Tops with bare shoulders, backs or midriffs, tank tops, halter tops
  • T-shirts
  • Miniskirts
  • Shorts
  • Spaghetti strap dresses, slip dresses
  • Cargo pants
  • Denim pants
  • Exercise wear
  • Leggings
  • Athletic shoes
  • Flip-flops, beach footwear
  • Boating/deck shoes
  • Winter, hiking boots

This is a good example of what a dress code looks in a corporate setting, or what a law office might expect, but as our poll shows, other businesses might have different ideas of appropriate attire. Do you think there is a hard and fast rule for dress codes? Should all businesses have one, is it too much trouble, or is it just unnecessary?

Human Resources PolicyPro

Human Resources PolicyPro

To find a sample dress code policy, take a free trial of Human Resources PolicyPro. This all-in-one policy-building resource offers not only sample policies but also commentary and related precedents to help you understand each policy in the context of relevant legislative requirements such as: recruitment, job descriptions, career management, training, payroll and compensation, performance management, conflict management, working conditions, health and safety, reasonable accommodation, and pay equity, among others.

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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5 thoughts on “Do you agree that workplaces should have a dress code?
  • Thanks for such a great article. This just underscores how important it is for employers to adopt clear, easy-to-follow policies, communicate them effectively and follow up with appropriate enforcement. Too many employers simply rely on their workers to understand the difference between “Casual Friday,” “Smart Casual,” “Business Casual,” etc., etc. The end result is frustration and confusion. Thanks again for the great summary!

  • Yes… uniforms … valid topic in relation to a dress code… but would require more than just mentioning it in a bullet point… there are requirements regarding uniforms under Employment Standards legislation that would need to be mentioned and they vary across jurisdictions. This blog post would have been too long… but valid point! Maybe a future blog post!

  • Tanya says:

    You did not mention that a company must be responsible for providing uniforms and assistance in the laundering of these uniforms. An employee must not be expected to purchase his/her own uniform to wear at work. Also, if a company gets too specific about HOW they wish their employees dress (specifying name brands, specifying exact styles of clothing – especially if it is hard to come by in local stores), then these clothing items may be deemed as ‘uniform’ and the company could be found to provide an allowance to staff to buy such clothing.

    We ask staff to dress and appear clean, presentable and professional. We have uniform tops that our staff need to wear, and we have a list of acceptable bottoms (pants, capris, skirts, etc.), and colours that may be warn under the tops. There have been instances where staff have been sent home to change, or given a replacement shirt or jacket to wear, when they show up to work in something that is not presentable. However, we have tried to not direct too much attention to dresscode. It is ‘visible’ to other staff and can prompt them to nitpick about what others are wearing – and the more specific a dresscode is, the more they try to notice. Our staffs time is better spent serving our customers rather than pointing out that someone is wearing more of a ‘teal’ top than a ‘navy’ one!

  • I sort of agree with your point Paula… however, looking at the issue legally…Although gender discrimination is specifically prohibited by law, it doesn’t mean that the dress code has to be the same for both genders. As long as the burden is not heavier on one gender than the other, and there is a business justification for it, there is no gender discrimination.

    Moreover, employers may have dress codes that differentiate between men and women without having any human rights violation or risk of gender discrimination.

    Because women are different from men… and dress differently… courts continue to uphold employers’ dress and grooming policies that reasonably differentiate by sex… mind you… up to a certain point.

    All policies (by law or best practice) require the use of good judgement from a manager or supervisor when being enforced. It even requires the employee’s good judgement… that does not mean they need not be in writing to ensure there are no misunderstandings, and employees know what to expect!

  • What is striking and concerning about what “inappropriate list” is that it targets women almost exclusively. Perhaps guys with pants hanging down to their knees is “too revealing”, sweatshirts and cargo pants are mostly about guys, but the list is really about what women should not wear. Many employers use overly prescriptive (but still not clear) dress codes to address issues with 1% of employees who make poor choices and their supervisors and managers who are reluctant to give them feedback. All policies should be developed for the 99% of employees not the 1%. For example, a dress code that deals with worker and customer safety applies to 100%, so it is both necessary and reasonable. The 1% who dress inappropriately (“unprofessionally) need feedback and managers and supervisors should have the authority, good judgement and courage to just say what needs to be said directly to an employee. Pages of detailed and prescriptive dress codes are simply unnecessary.