In Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1716 v. British Columbia Assessment Authority, the union filed a policy grievance after a new management policy was put in place in the Kelowna office of the British Columbia Assessment Authority (the “BCAA”). The new policy banned the wearing of blue jeans or shorts in the office by all employees on days that they were not in the field in settings where jeans were appropriate, for example on farm locations.
The introduction of the policy followed considerable back and forth between management and employees in various BCAA locations, and developments in typical workplace attire caused by the merging of two more casual rural offices with the more formal, urban Kelowna office.
At arbitration, it was found that the prohibition on shorts and blue jeans was inconsistent with the employer’s established policy, which emphasized employees exercising their discretion with regards to choosing professional attire appropriate for their job and location.
It was stressed that, concerning a unilateral employer rule to be enforced through discipline, the rule must be:
- consistent with the collective agreement;
- clear and unequivocal;
- brought to the attention of employees before it is acted upon; and
- consistently enforced.
The reasonableness of a rule directing employee dress and appearance turns on balancing the employer’s legitimate business interest with the employee’s personal rights. To demonstrate a legitimate business interest, an employer will have to be able to show that the appearance prohibited presents a threat to its image and, at the very least, threatens a consequential loss in business to the company. Demonstrating this threat becomes more difficult where, as was the case here, the rule also applies to employees who have little to no contact with the public.
In this case, there had been no documented external or client complaints over the staff’s work attire. When conducting customer surveys, BCAA had made no effort to elicit information on the public’s view of their staff’s appearance. As such, there was no objective evidence to demonstrate a threat to their business.
Furthermore, the policy was meant to apply to all employees in the Kelowna office, including those who never had any interaction with clients.
Ultimately, the union’s grievance was allowed and the permanent restriction on blue jeans and shorts in the Kelowna office was rescinded.
By Marty Rabinovitch and Michelle Stephenson (Student-at-Law)