Is Your Dress Code Breaking The Law?


This week marked International Women’s Day, and also saw the Ontario Human Rights Commission call for an end to sexualized dress codes that discriminate against female and transgender employees. The proposed changes? Dress codes can’t reinforce sexist stereotypes, and any policy requiring women to wear heels or revealing clothing could be a violation of the Human Rights code. Particularly in the hospitality industry, where dress codes are often gender-based, this is a big change.

Don’t single anyone out! Use flexible, inclusive, gender-neutral language in your dress code policies.

You’re probably already familiar with the HR “rule books” you need to follow, but even if your dress code isn’t overtly discriminatory, it’s worth revisiting. In this era of workplace flexibility, employees across the board are no longer content with having their clothing choices made for them. Yet balancing employee desires to dress how they want while still conveying a professional image can be tricky, and shifting societal norms around appropriate attire for work has left many employers scratching their heads when it comes to dress codes.

So do you throw in the towel? While implementing or enforcing a dress code is not without challenges, it’s important to create clarity around acceptable clothing choices. Whether you’re more on the “Business” or “Casual” side of the “Business Casual” spectrum, spelling out appropriate attire in writing makes sure everyone knows what the expectations are.

Are you ready for the changes? Here are a few “Dress Code Dos” to keep in mind when revamping your policy:

Create a dialogue

Employee appearance is a reflection of your organization, and it makes sense that you want the impression your organization makes to be a positive one. Share your reasons with employees, and solicit employee input and feedback when revising an existing policy. Employees are more likely to be on board when they have a say.

Include a conversation about the dress code as part of your orientation process, so that there are no surprises. Particularly with new employees who are unfamiliar with your organization’s culture, cluing them in about how to dress can also reduce the stress and anxiety of those first few days.

Take an inclusive stance

Incorporate flexible and inclusive language to ensure your policies are sensitive to cultural and religious clothing requirements. Make sure your policy addresses and accommodates employees’ physical comfort, and considers the full spectrum of gender expression. Policies should be phrased in gender neutral terms and refrain from listing specific types of clothing that might single employees out based on gender.

Keep an open mind

The number of people with tattoos and body art has grown exponentially over the past decade—20% of Canadians and over 1/3 of Millennials have at least one tattoo. Tattoos are no longer part of a shady subculture, and they’re showing up in many workplaces. There’s even a Facebook group devoted to “Tattoo acceptance in the workplace”.

And while tattoos, piercings, and other body art isn’t protected by human rights legislation unless worn for religious reasons, that doesn’t mean policies requiring employees to cover them are valid. While employers can ask that anything distasteful be covered up, courts have ruled in the past that employees cannot be required to hide inoffensive or discreet body art.

Ultimately, common sense should prevail! Tailor your dress code to your company culture, set some specific parameters around professionalism and expectations, include everyone in the dialogue, put it in writing, and let your employees bring their awesome selves to work!

Your Engaged Assignment: Considering putting a dress code in place? Already have one but plan on making changes? Make sure everyone is kept in the loop. The fastest route to disengaged employees is not communicating with them.

Want a second set of eyes on your Dress Code Policy? Ask us – We’re happy to help!