Are work dress codes on the way out?

'We want everyone to be themselves and know that they belong'

Are work dress codes on the way out?

Now that most Virgin Atlantic employees are allowed to display tattoos in public, is it time for employers to once and for all dump restrictive dress codes and fully allow employees to be their full selves?

While this new relaxing of rules doesn’t yet apply to flight attendants (although that might change at some point), the move shows that at least one employer is living up to the oft-repeated mantra that an employee is at his or her best when allowed to bring their authentic selves to the workplace.

“We want everyone to be themselves and know that they belong. Many people use tattoos to express their unique identities and our customer-facing and uniformed colleagues should not be excluded from doing so if they choose. That's why, in line with our focus on inclusion and championing individuality, we're relaxing our tattoo restrictions for all our people,” says Estelle Hollingsworth, chief people officer at Virgin Atlantic.

In this case, the irony of the attendant uniform, which was designed by Vivienne Westwood, who is well-known for her part in the creation of punk, is apparent.

“It’s only fitting that Virgin Atlantic team members can express themselves with their unique tattoos, wearing the red uniforms designed by the godmother of punk,” says the airline.

Not as progressive

While the Virgin employees must be feeling relieved about this, in Canada, teachers are not so lucky as one Quebec teacher was taken out of the classroom for wearing a hijab.

While in most case, this type of action would have failed to pass the human rights sniff test, the province’s Bill 21 allowed this to happen legally.

“In most workplaces, it’s probably not a significant issue to the point where the dress code would even address this, but I think the critical thing is that employers need to be mindful of the fact that they have obligations to accommodate human rights and they also have an obligation to not be implementing policies that negatively impact people of certain religions. If somebody’s wearing a hijab, for example, at the workplace, it doesn’t really have any connection to what they actually do,” says Nicole Toye, an employment lawyer and partner at Harris & Company.

While many workers went home in the early part of the pandemic and turned in business attire for home casual, questions still arose as some employers actually required some female employees to dress provocatively to gain new customers or present a better face while on the job.

Legal questions

But is this above board?

“An employer can ask employees to dress professionally and to have a respectful appearance in the workplace, especially in situations where you’re dealing with clients and customers. That is a reasonable expectation and it’s an expectation that an employer should communicate to all its employees,” says employment lawyer Lior Samfiru.

While this requirement to be professional is warranted, singling out women to dress in a certain manner is not, he says.

“You cannot make demands that women dress in a provocative way or in an alluring or sexy way: That is inappropriate. That is a complete and utter breach of the Human Rights Code and human rights legislation in any province. Distinguishing between men and women is not appropriate and making demands that call upon a female’s attractiveness or asking her to be more attractive, that is clearly inappropriate.”

It’s not only illegal to ask different workers to dress differently, it’s also not the right idea for a workplace.

Stuart Rudner, founder of Rudner Law, says: “Employers need to recognize at all times that they cannot implement policies that create such a harsh distinction between employees based on gender, religion, ethnicity, or otherwise. No one should have to show up to work feeling pressured to wear something that they are completely uncomfortable with only the sake of accumulating better tips or attracting clients.”

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