Local office’s jean and shorts ban clotheslined

Overall company policy allowed employees to use their judgment for appropriate attire at work; local managers didn’t have authority to impose their own bans

A British Columbia arbitrator has rescinded an employer’s dress code policy that prohibited jeans and shorts in the office.

The B.C. Assessment Authority (BCAA) is an organization that establishes and maintains uniform real property assessments throughout the province under the Assessment Authority Act. It also produces annual rolls with property classification and market value, which provide the basis of tax rolls.

The BCAA’s head office is in Victoria, with 15 field offices around B.C. Appraisers and assessors often go on field visits to residential, commercial, industrial and government properties to determine their value, though sometimes such information can be determined from other sources online without employees leaving the office.

Annual property assessments are sent to property owners by Dec. 31 each year, and owners have until the end of January to dispute an assessment. As a result, late January — and early February, if Jan. 31 falls on a weekend — is a busy time for the BCAA, with a large number of telephone and Internet queries along with members of the public coming to the offices. Appraisers have to respond to queries and explain how classifications and market values were reached. Appeal hearings are then held until mid-March, making the period of Jan. 1 to mid-March the “inquiry period.”

The BCAA’s collective agreement had no dress code incorporated into it. Many employees accepted informal guidelines to dress with professionalism and wore clothes such as dress pants and collared shirts, and sometimes shorts in the summer. Some appraisers found it was better to dress casually for field visits because people were more likely to open the door — dress pants, shirt and tie often gave people the impression they were trying to sell them something, according to some BCAA employees. The same was said when members of the public came to the offices during the inquiry period — a more casual appearance put people more at ease.

Dress in the field offices was generally more casual than the larger urban offices. Jeans and shorts were rarely seen in the latter. Occasionally management sent reminders to employees in various offices that the intended dress was business casual, to portray a “professional — yet casual image.” Some offices banned jeans except for on specified “Jeans Days.”

New workplace attire policy

In October 2010, the BCAA adopted a workplace attire policy applicable to all employees in its head and field offices. The policy recognized staff worked in “a variety of environments” when conducting field visits, so it couldn’t provide direction for appropriate dress in every work situation. It provided a guideline, stating “it is our expectation that employees will come to work wearing appropriate and professional attire. Common sense, reasonableness and good judgment should prevail when selecting work attire that is appropriate for the intended activity and in accordance with WorkSafe BC and any other safety considerations.”

The policy stated it was applicable to employees, but didn’t specifically indicate local office managers could determine standards for their individual offices.

After the policy was adopted, the deputy assessor at the Okanagan region office told employees that jeans were not permitted unless there was a “unique situation.” He said jeans, running shoes and t-shirts were not considered appropriate and professional attire mentioned in the corporate guidelines. The Okanagan region assessor followed that up by saying blue jeans would not be worn in the office during the inquiry period, which was not well-received by employees.

The Okanagan assessor decided to form an employee committee to consider appropriate professional attire for the Kelowna office. In May 2011, the committee endorsed a guide that was distributed to employees for approval or rejection. The guide stated sports outfits, revealing outfits, and torn or dirty clothing was unacceptable, as was clothing with brand names or sports logos. Almost all the employees approved the guide.

During collective bargaining in January 2012, the union encouraged employees to wear blue jeans as a protest. Employees in some offices did while other offices didn’t participate. A couple of weeks later, the Vancouver Island regional manager told his employees that jeans, running shoes and t-shirts were not suitable, except when doing dirty field work. He interpreted the BCAA workplace policy as giving local managers authority to direct appropriate attire for their offices.

Jeans, shorts banned in local office

In December 2013, the Kelowna office moved to the third floor of a high-end office building. Before the move, employees often wore shorts and jeans to the office, but the assessor felt the new place was an opportunity to project a professional image in line with other tenants in the office building, so he banned blue jeans and shorts in the office. The BCAA obtained the use of change room and shower facilities for employees who wanted to walk or cycle to work and change into professional clothes when they arrived.

It was common practice for employees who expected to be in the field for more than half the day could wear jeans or shorts while they were in the office. However, this was becoming less common as appraisers spent more time on analytical work in the office and less time in the field.

Several employees who usually wore jeans to the office weren’t pleased and had to purchase other pants for work. Others were also unhappy they couldn’t wear shorts on hot summer days.

The union grieved the restrictions on blue jeans and shorts in the office in the Kelowna office, saying they should be allowed in some circumstances and were inconsistent with the BCAA corporate policy. The union also argued the restrictions were “an unreasonable and impermissible unilateral employer rule.”

The union argued the BCAA’s workplace attire policy didn’t permit local managers to impose blanket restrictions such as the one banning blue jeans and shorts from the Kelowna office. It also said the policy put the onus on employees to decide whether and when to wear jeans and shorts. It also noted there were no customer complaints or other evidence to establish the business casual standard without jeans or shorts.

The BCAA claimed it has the right to establish reasonable workplace attire rules and some employees might need guidance on what was acceptable professional attire. Employees did not have “unfettered autonomy” in deciding what to wear to work under the policy, but they still had autonomy in deciding what to wear on field visits or specified casual days, the BCAA argued.

The arbitrator noted that before the inception of the BCAA’s workplace attire policy in 2010, the authority carried out its function for 36 years without one. Dress standards evolved in local offices individually and employees dressed according to their circumstances — relating to whether they were in the office, in the field, and the season. If inappropriate choices of dress were made, managers gave guiding advice and direction.

When the policy was instituted, there was still no specific prohibition of clothing, just an expectation that employees would wear “appropriate and professional attire.” The effect was that it didn’t cause “an appreciable change” to what employees wore, or create any consistency between various field offices, said the arbitrator.

“By employer choice and design, the workplace attire policy, which was not and is not being challenged by the union, is not prescriptive,” said the arbitrator. “The judgment to select appropriate attire for the intended daily activity for each situation and environment is left to individual employees.”

The arbitrator found the issue of appropriate attire came up when two other field offices amalgamated with the Kelowna office in 2010. There were differences in the attire standards for those offices, which spawned the policy discussions and committee, and the eventual ban on jeans and shorts. The arbitrator also found the assessor and deputy assessor weren’t fond of jeans and shorts and the office and were looking for a way to stop employees from wearing them — such as the move to a new location in a highly professional and corporate building. But banning jeans and shorts wasn’t a power given to them by the BCAA’s workplace attire policy, said the arbitrator.

“In imposing the change the Kelowna managers chose to limit the autonomy expressly given to employees in the employer’s workplace attire policy. They substituted their judgment for the judgment expressly given to the employees. They overruled the employees’ judgment that had been accepted throughout the preceding years by both them and their predecessors; was consistent with the policy; generated no customer complaints; and did not attract senior executive approbation,” said the arbitrator.

The arbitrator found the permanent restriction on jeans and shorts in the office on non-field trip days was inconsistent with the main policy and wasn’t based on any evidence that such clothing had a negative effect on the BCAA’s image. The grievance was allowed.

For more information see:

Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1767 and B.C. Assessment Authority, 2015 CarswellBC 2268 (B.C. Arb.).

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