Pink hair, tattoos and piercings — in most workplaces, they used to be strictly verboten. But times have changed, and employers are catching up.
Starbucks recently updated its dress code to allow for more “individuality” amongst employees. Tattoos, coloured hair and patterned shirts are not only allowed but welcomed among customer-facing employees.
The company even produced the new dress code as a visual “look book,” providing photos and examples of acceptable sartorial choices rather than just a written policy.
“Our success is rooted in our continual innovation and customization in every aspect of our business and this also applies to offering the best partner experience we can,” said Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks Canada. “We are responding to what our partners have told us and are confident this will uplift the Starbucks brand, partner and customer experience.”
More casual dress codes are becoming more acceptable, said Dianne Hunnam-Jones, district president for eastern Canada at Robert Half in Toronto.
“Companies are seeing that dressing up for work, so to speak, continues to go out of style.”
In fact, 21 per cent of senior managers feel employees wear less formal clothing today than they did five years ago, according to a Robert Half and Office Team survey. And about one-half of employees would prefer to work for a company that has a business casual or casual dress code, found the 2016 survey of more than 300 senior managers and 400 employees.
“There is a definite movement towards a more relaxed dress code in the workplace,” she said.
Environment is key
Dress codes vary broadly across the board, from casual to business professional, among employers.
“It depends on the environment and depends on the role the person plays in the company,” said Hunnam-Jones.
“For most positions, where you’re interacting with other business professionals, it tends to be business professional. And as a front-line, reception, customer service (employee), you are looking more business professional. In the back office… definitely more casual.”
It’s a good idea for people to always err on the side of caution and to dress for the position they aspire to, she said.
“Even if that dress code is all very relaxed and casual and everybody’s in jeans, but you ultimately want to be a senior manager with the company, take a look at the senior managers and see how they’re dressing. That’s how you want to dress.”
The most common dress code violations include wearing overly casual clothing, according to 35 per cent of managers, and showing too much skin, according to 20 per cent, found the survey.
Sexualized dress codes
Showing skin of course brings up another critical issue employers should keep in mind: That of sexualized dress codes.
While relaxed dress codes can be great, it’s certainly possible for a dress code to go too far by sexualizing the clothing that employees — most often, women — are expected to wear at work, said David Whitten, a partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto.
“The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) in March of this year released some guidelines on sexualized workplace dress codes, so it’s recently gotten quite a bit of attention as a result of that,” he said.
“The commission’s stance in this regard really gives some visibility as to how the tribunal will deal with these types of applications.”
An employer could be exposed to damages if a complaint is
made under this ground, said Whitten.
“Employers are on notice that to insist that employees wear a certain outfit without a legitimate reason for doing so is really problematic,” he said.
“There have been some cases where an employer was held accountable for insisting women wear skirts while allowing their male servers to wear pants. And the tribunal found that there’s no legitimate reason why a woman should have to wear a skirt in the workplace if her male counterparts were permitted to wear pants.”
The ability for an employer to insist on these types of clothing choices has become quite limited, said Whitten.
“And there’s a recognition that there’s liability associated with insisting women dress a certain way.”
It has become a risky legal area for employers moving forward — particularly employers in the hospitality industry — including the restaurant and bar scene — where a lot of employers have built a brand on providing a “certain look” for servers to entice clients.
“I think those companies now are in dangerous territory,” said Whitten.
“It’s not just the dress code and how the woman feels in it but, unfortunately, in this society, a lot of people misinterpret a woman’s dress as saying something about her sexual morals or availability.”
Colleagues may even treat them differently, which could lead to legal trouble around sexual harassment complaints.
On the flip side, some professional offices such as law firms require everyone to dress quite conservatively, said Whitten.
“Somewhere in the middle is probably the right thing. To require everybody to wear a nun’s habit? Not necessary. But, by the same token, requiring everybody to wear a halter top is not wise either.”
There’s no doubt that in many workplaces, there’s been a shift towards employers relaxing dress codes, said Adrian Ishak, employment lawyer and partner at Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto.
And the OHRC policy around sexualized dress codes is an excellent step.
“But very few employers are going to find themselves in that position of requiring sexualized dress codes. I think the bigger issue is just, generally speaking, engendered expectations,” he said.
“There’s a number of issues — first of all, the gender issue and the trans issues that are associated with it.”
It’s very important that employers do not assign gender expectations to dress codes — meaning women may wear skirts, or rules to that effect — because that could potentially cause issues among sexual minorities and trans individuals in the workplace, he said.
When it comes to dress codes, it’s always best to have a clear, written policy instead of relying on common sense, said Ishak.
“Because common sense is actually not that common — and nowhere is this more evident than in dress codes.”
Employers will often try to rely on employees’ good judgment, and very often then have to backtrack and create a dress code, he said.
“My advice to my clients is always to have a dress code. You want to relax your dress code? That’s fine, but have a written policy about things that are acceptable and things that are not.”
There are some issues to keep in mind, first and foremost of which is to avoid gendered norms, such as forcing women to wear skirts and men to wear pants.
Also, avoid gendered language within the policy, said Ishak.
“Employers that often move toward more relaxed, casual dress codes more often than not get out in front of it by having a written policy.”
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