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Jan 29, 2013

Employee dress codes: The issue that won’t go away

Business casual policies, gender-specific dress codes and body art

By Brian Kreissl

With all the issues and challenges facing HR professionals today, one area that continues to confound many practitioners is implementing and enforcing an organization’s dress code.

The confusion relating to appropriate office attire is at least partially a result of business casual policies in many companies. And changing societal norms relating to dress and appearance are causing a certain amount of conflict relating to what’s considered appropriate and inappropriate attire for the office.

What counts as ‘business casual?’

Back when everyone wore business attire — at least in an office environment — there was little room for interpretation with respect to what was considered acceptable and unacceptable dress. But with many organizations having gone business casual, there’s much more confusion.

After all, what does “business casual” actually mean?

For some organizations, business casual — at least for men — means a blazer, dress pants and a dress shirt (albeit without a tie). However, for other organizations, business casual can mean (as one former colleague put it) “no hot pants or offensive T-shirts.”

Obviously, in some companies the emphasis is on the “business” part of business casual, whereas others have a dress code that’s just plain “casual.”

A big part of the difference relates to the industry and the culture of the organization. Obviously, a small start-up software company is likely to have a more relaxed dress code than a law firm.

Another difference relates to the role and whether or not it’s customer-facing. For example, I once worked in HR at a bank in Toronto’s financial district where suits and ties were the norm. However, unlike the investment bankers and brokers in our building — or even the tellers in the branch downstairs — we weren’t generally required to wear formal business attire.

I didn’t work with customers and rarely met with internal clients face-to-face. However, because of the location and the people we were likely to meet, the expectations with regard to dress were definitely more on the business side of business casual.

Even an organization’s customer expectations, target market, branding and public image will have an impact on its dress code. For example, a Harley-Davidson dealership would probably have a very different dress code for its sales staff than a Mercedes-Benz dealership.

Separate dress codes for men and women

Do dress codes have to be exactly the same for men and women?

While I could devote an entire blog post to this issue, according to Canadian human rights legislation it is acceptable to have differing standards of dress and grooming for men and women. After all, men and women look and dress differently.

However, dress codes cannot unfairly target one gender or create substantially different standards for men and women. For example, it’s probably unacceptable to force female servers in a restaurant to wear bikinis while male servers can wear khakis and golf shirts.

It’s also important to consider other prohibited grounds of discrimination and the duty to accommodate. For example, if a Muslim woman were to object on religious grounds to being required to wear a short skirt, the employer would likely need to modify the dress code or uniform to accommodate the employee.

Also of significance is the protection from discrimination based on gender expression in several Canadian jurisdictions. Human rights legislation in those jurisdictions would now likely recognize the rights of transgendered individuals to dress according to the gender they identify with, whether or not they’ve had gender reassignment surgery.

Tattoos, piercings and other body art

It’s probably safe to say tattoos are no longer just for bikers and sailors. Respectable doctors, lawyers and business executives now have tattoos — some of which can be highly visible. Likewise, especially in the case of a discreet nose stud or even a lip ring, piercings no longer carry the same stigma they once did.

Yet because body art isn’t protected by human rights legislation (other than perhaps certain jewellery worn for religious reasons) the prevailing thinking until recently was employers are generally free to create policies requiring employees to cover up tattoos and piercings.

Nevertheless, an arbitrator has recently ruled an Ottawa hospital cannot enforce such a policy, which he found to be an infringement of employees’ civil rights. Time will tell if other courts and tribunals adopt a similar approach.

But for now common sense should prevail. Discreet and tasteful tattoos and piercings should probably be allowed by most employers — but not anything that could be considered profane, distasteful or hateful.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit  

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Who decides our style, was never an issue for the past 4+ years!
Wednesday, July 16, 2014 10:06:00 AM
Have been working for this company for almost 5 years. No one have ever said anything about employees wearing unacceptable attire. At the same time no is or has. We work in a wareshouse setting where the offices are at the front (cubicles to be correct). We wareshoue tires and of course it smells like tires. Wednesday's are jean days (we pay to participate)and Fridays are casual days. The 2 Call Ctr guys were branded T-Shirts or Polo Shirts. They are tasteful nothing offensive. They often have the brand name, Nike, Tommy, etc. The 2 girls wear LuLu pants and no name black stretchy pants. Never offensive always appropritate and clean. Out of the blue we get an email from HR advising that the following are Unacceptable Attire:
leotards, tights, spandex pants, leggings. Mini-skirts, Athletic shoes, running shoes, or tennis shoes. Hiking boots or military style boots. Skin-tight or form fitting pants, dresses, or skirts.
Attimes we do wear short skirts, form fitting pants, even my dress pants are form fitting.
Who decides? We work in cubicles, no visitors, it's a tire wareshouse. It's our individual style and no one has ever had any issues. All 12 employees, we are just baffled. What are our rights?
The two guys were given written notice one for wearing branded shirts, shirts they've worn to work for the past 3-4 years. They are simply decide themselves.
Who can we see or speak with to help us?

Brands and models but the employee has to buy the clothing
Saturday, May 18, 2013 1:33:00 PM
I recently was looking to start a job a little business. I was told that there was a dress code. They then proceeded to tell me that I had to wear clothing that was a brand name that they only sold and I would be able to buy it at a significant discount. (I would have to buy a clothing myself that could only be used for work at this specific shop?) I was also told that the footwear that I am to wear not only had to be the same brand they carried but also the new styles that were being sold day to day. So if they discontinues a style I would have to buy another pair again. I have always been of the understanding that in Canada that if a company dictated the brand, style specifically then the Company would be on the hook for suppling the garments at no cost to the employee. I understand the want for a company to have their employees to be wearing what brands and models they sell but this cost burden cannot be placed on the employee especially if you take into account the lower rate of pay these employees make to begin with. I would be curious to hear what other opinions are out there on this topic
Thursday, March 07, 2013 11:15:00 AM
Here's one for you...
I recently applied for a position in a small company. They were eager to have my skills and experience, but in the end I decided not to take the position due to the fact their "dress code" for women is that they wear skirts every day, and it's "strictly enforced".

They belong to a religious sect, and this is the way they dress. I was told straight up it was due to "cultural and religious beliefs".

Is this even legal? It has nothing to do with their business (which would be in the 'business casual' arena for dress code in general).
My rule of thumb
Wednesday, February 06, 2013 3:26:00 PM by Michelle
The basic rule of thumb I gave to colleagues when a Dress Code was not in place was: If dress is business casual, it (generally) means if you would wear it to the beach, to a night club or to do yard work in, it's not appropriate at work.
Mid-stream Changes are Difficult
Tuesday, January 29, 2013 7:03:00 PM
We've recently been told that the dress code must be more strictly enforced. Major hurdles will be those who have had what's now on the naughty list for years as well as the 20-somethings who wear just about everything on said list. Three generations under one work roof isn't always comfortable!
Description Confusion
Tuesday, January 29, 2013 4:47:00 PM by Jim
When I first started with the organization part of the dresscode prohibited the wearing of Thongs to work. I asked why would anyone wear a thong to work and was told rather then the undergarment they were refering to footwear!
Inconsistencies in enforcing dress codes
Tuesday, January 29, 2013 4:38:00 PM
Hypocrisy can be an issue as well. I was once sent home to change by my manager because I was wearing patterned tights. A few days later, her boss – i.e. the VP – came to work wearing fishnet stockings. No one sent the VP home.