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

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

Brian Kreissl

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 [email protected]. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.  

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