Forcing employees to tuck in their shirts

Calgary employer wanted workers to tuck their shirts in, but union said policy embarassed large employees

This issue of “You make the call” steps into the realm of arbitration. The Alberta Arbitration Board was recently faced with the question of whether or not a unionized employer could force its workers to tuck in their shirts.

The Union of Calgary Co-Op Employees filed a grievance over a policy by Calgary Co-operative Ltd. that required all employees to wear Co-op shirts that are tucked in at the waist. The union challenged the policy because it said it placed larger employees in a humiliating position because a tucked-in shirt negatively impacted their appearance.

The employer’s policy stated that uniform shirts had to be tucked in while the employees were on company property. The policy stated that if workers felt uncomfortable about tucking in their shirts, they had the option of wearing an apron or a “pinnie” that is paid for by the company, or purchasing a vest or jacket. But the shirt still had to be tucked in.

The policy requiring workers to tuck their shirts in replaced an old policy that said that “shirts must be worn in a professional and neat appearance at all times. Shirts may be worn out providing they are no longer or shorter than the top of the thigh.”

The employer said it changed the policy because Co-op wanted to position itself in a competitive marketplace as a “premier shopping destination.” It would not necessarily compete on the basis of providing the cheapest prices but on providing value for money. Therefore the company wanted to focus on image and quality in convincing customers it was the best, and it added wider aisles, new carts and additional services like sushi bars and butcher shops.

The employer said “staff look” was an important part of its new strategy, and employee uniforms were a part of its image. It said the old policy wasn’t working and that employees had been given an inch and had taken a mile. A ban on untucked shirts eliminated ambiguities and contributed positively to the store’s image, it said.

You make the call

Did the employer have the right to force workers to tuck-in their shirts?
Was the policy unreasonable?

If you said the policy was unreasonable, you’re right. The arbitrator said there wasn’t any strong evidence that a tucked-in shirt was any more appealing to customers or professional than an untucked one.

It said Co-op honestly believed the policy was in its best interests, and that its managers had sound reasons for wanting the shirts tucked in. But the evidence was lacking that tucking shirts in would achieve the results the company wanted, and therefore the rule was not reasonable.

“Some employees feel personally humiliated and suffer emotional stress if they are required to wear their uniforms tucked in,” the arbitrator said.

A customer survey done by the employer to defend the rule was inadequate and did not offer a positive link between the tuck-in rule and its business strategy. The arbitrator directed the employer to reconsider its tuck-in rule and, preferably in consultation with the union, replace it with a rule that is reasonable.

For more information see:

Calgary Co-operative Ltd. v. U.C.C.E., 2006 CarswellAlta 148 (Alta. Arb. Bd.)

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