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Fashion faux pas – Dress code pitfalls

In addition to safety concerns, employers have a legitimate interest in prohibiting dress that detracts from their corporate image or offends customers. The common law principle is that dress codes must be reasonable, balancing the legitimate business interests of employers with the employees’ right to self-expression.

Dress code policies are fraught with potential problems for employers which must be balanced against the wish to have employees project the desired image of the employer. The following list identifies ten potential pitfalls to watch for in dress code policies:


  1. Don’t discriminate – a dress code policy which requires women to wear revealing clothing (bikini tops, short skirts, shorts etc.) may attract a certain clientele but has also been found to be a violation of human rights
  2. Accommodate – dress codes must be modified in order to accommodate employees who require it under human rights legislation. It may be necessary to accommodate religious dress or grooming requirements or assistive devices for the disabled, among others
  3. Be specific – not everyone shares the same understanding of terms such as “proper”, “casual”, or “appropriate”, leading to unnecessary embarrassment and conflict
  4. Beware the cost – Employers should consider the cost to buy and maintain uniforms and required dress. A human rights tribunal has held that an employer can require employees to wear blazers, however, it must contribute to the cost of the blazers as such clothing would not normally be in an employee’s closet
  5. Be reasonable – most dress codes are acceptable to employees if they are reasonable and reflect business needs, rather than an employer’s personal preference
  6. Be safe – Ensure that the dress code reinforces safe work practices. For example, jewellery and machinery don’t mix
  7. Be considerate – dress codes should consider an employee’s working conditions such as whether the workplace is indoors, outdoors, air-conditioned or over-heated
  8. Be diplomatic – employers may have to deal with employees with hygiene or dress code issues and must ensure that they respect an employee’s privacy and dignity
  9. Be consistent – inconsistent enforcement leaves employees guessing as to how the policy is being interpreted and may lead to claims of discrimination
  10. Be fashion forward – who would have guessed twenty years ago that almost all young people would sport tattoos and piercings and pantyhose would go the way of the dodo bird? Dress codes should be reviewed and revised periodically to ensure they still make sense

Hence, employers establish a dress code policy when they want to regulate the personal appearance of their employees. This 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. Employers also need to ensure that the policy does not unduly infringe on an individual’s religious or personal rights and relates to contemporary community standards. Overall, employers can regulate dress code, but they shouldn’t do it in a discriminatory way.

For more compliance information and best practices on Dress code and a sample policy, consult the Employee Relations chapter, sample policy 5.10 in the Human Resources PolicyPro, Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba & Saskatchewan, and Atlantic editions, published by First Reference Inc.

Michele Glassford
Editor of Human Resources PolicyPro
published by First Reference Inc.

Michele Glassford

President and Managing Editor at DRH and Lawyer at MacKinnon Law Associates
Michele Glassford, is a lawyer, researcher and policy analyst with a background in employment and labour law.In addition to a part-time law practice in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Michele has worked in the field of labour adjustment for the Health Sector Training and Adjustment Program and has been a Researcher for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Michele also holds the position of President and Managing Editor at D.R. Hancocks & Associates Inc., author of the Human Resources PolicyPros. Read more

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