Do dress codes still make sense?

Teacher wearing prosthetic breasts highlights complexity of such policies

Do dress codes still make sense?

With an Oakville, Ont. shop teacher making the news after wearing a large set of prosthetic breasts in the classroom, the issue of dress codes at work has bubbled to the surface.

But in the modern, business-casual environment, with many employees working from home or frequenting the workplace less often, will they become a thing of the past?

“I’d say many organizations have a dress code on the books still, that has not been followed in many years and so there is a binder somewhere, that said women have to wear pantyhose and mustaches must be trimmed to a certain length and it’s been many years since people have focused on those aspects,” says Catherine Connelly, professor of human resources and management at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“The dress codes have really not been a focus to the same extent that they would have been 20, 30 years ago.”

Avoiding politics

An important consideration is if an employee’s clothing has to be mandated for occupational safety reasons, says Connelly.

“That might mean hair has to be covered; if you have a beard, you need a hair net. Maybe you need long sleeves, maybe you need close-toed shoes, maybe you need safety boots, and that would be the first criteria.”

And when an employee’s clothing has strong messaging attached, HR should step in and educate that worker, she says.

“An individual employee, maybe they’re wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan on it and maybe that’s not something you want with somebody who’s client-facing and so you would prefer that they don’t do that.”

In these cases, it’s OK for the employer to offer another shirt, if possible, or send that worker home to change clothing.

The gender issue

Ideally, a dress code would be as minimalist as possible, says Connelly.

“It is going to be inclusive for all employees so that means it doesn’t need to be overly gendered and it should also be inclusive of employees who are, for example, non-binary or who are transgender.”

In some organizations, especially with workers in public view, presentation and appearance can play an important role. Imposing a way to dress is perfectly acceptable but it must take into account all types of employees, she says.

“For example, there are many dress codes that are unfortunately very gendered, and they are not at all restrictive for male employees, and then have a laundry list of all the things that the female employees need to be attentive to, right down to the size of straps or hem lengths. It could be much simpler to just say: ‘Knees have to be covered; shirts have to have a collar.’”

“It’s a more minimalist approach but it covers everybody and it still allows individual expression of an employee’s personality or personal preference,” she says.

WestJet recently addressed this issue with its workforce by moving to genderless uniforms and a space for pronouns on name tags.

In certain industries, some workplaces have overly restrictive burdens placed on females, which isn’t necessarily just, says Connelly, and it would be ideal if these rules were eliminated.

“There are a lot of restaurants that will require their female servers to wear high heels and it’s a terrible rule because it’s completely unsafe: there’s a slip or tripping hazard; these are not good shoes for people to be wearing and then it’s an undue burden on half of your servers, where it might make them slower or more uncomfortable compared to the others.”

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, such gender-specific dress codes constitute Human Rights Code-violating discrimination.

First impressions

As a professor of business, Connelly is often asked by students applying for jobs or internships: what should I wear?

“With everything being over Zoom over the last few years, it’s sometimes difficult to just intuitively know what the social norms are around how you will present yourself and so the guidance they’re usually told is a shirt with a collar, no jeans; sometimes they’re told no cotton, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily universal.”

Is a tank top and fedora considered professional business attire?

With more people returning to the office, “people will pick up on these social cues more intuitively,” says Connelly.

“In the meantime, as long as people are dressing comfortably in a way that they feel confident, and is more or less similar to what other people around them are wearing, it’s not something they really have to worry too much about.”

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