The recent controversy over casual attire in the office has raised once again the right of the employer to set out an expected dress code. Should office staff be allowed to wear yoga pants at work has become a new issue.

Union Environment

The essential question for management in a unionized setting is whether the dress code is “reasonable”. This standard is expected to be one which can be rationalized by legitimate business reasons. Examples of this would include workplace health and safety issues or the company’s desire for a certain business image.

In one arbitral case, the issue was whether the employer could impose a rule which required employees to cover all large tattoos and to remove visible body piercings. In this instance, the employer, a public hospital, had failed to show a legitimate business purpose and in fact had attempted to avoid a harm which did not exist.[1]

Non-Unionized Setting

Generally speaking, an employer in a non-unionized environment has greater freedom in imposing workplace dress rules. The limiting factor is generally found in human rights considerations. For example an apparently benign dress code may inadvertently negatively impact certain religious requirements such as are observed by Muslim women.

In certain cases, an affirmative dress code mandating that females, as an example, wear revealing clothing such as bikinis or similarly apparel, may be found to be adverse treatment due to gender. The irony to these types of decisions is that they are based on the argument that female workers are required to wear such revealing clothing, whereas men are not.

Alberta and B.C. have each banned the requirement to wear high heels. Ontario has proposed a provision to the same effect. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has published a policy statement against mandatory high heels and revealing attire.  More will be said of this subsequently.

As to the basic issue of the employer’s right to impose a workplace dress code, there is no debate that this is within the right of management, presuming no human rights violation.

Employers’ View

Employers should be wary of the need to take care in drafting a dress code to ensure its enforceability.

Employees’ Perspective

Employees similarly should seek advice on dress code issues which may impact religious belief or expose a worker to the need to wear sexually revealing attire.

Get Advice Before You Act

Get preliminary advice and avoid long term problems. Contact the offices of Toronto employment and labour lawyers Mallins Law. We regularly advise employees and employers on legal workplace issues. Contact us online or by phone at 647 792 0310 to schedule a consultation.


[1] Re Ottawa Hospital & CUPE Local 4000 (Dress Code)