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When an employer attempted to institute a formal dress code requiring its staff to wear business casual attire and prohibiting jeans and shorts in the workplace, the union filed a policy grievance.

The employer, the British Columbia Assessment Authority, conducts real property assessments and has field offices across the provinces. Those offices are staffed by employees who provide face-to-face answers to public inquires, albeit on average seven visits a day. Some field offices are in smaller towns, which tended to have less formal attire and some field offices are in more urban centres, with a higher level of formality.

The employer’s Workplace Attire Policy confirmed that the organization was a “professional services agency” and provided that:

Our image is communicated to the public and our clients in part by our employees’ attire…it is our expectation that employees will come to work wearing appropriate and professional attire. Common sense, reasonableness and good judgment should prevail when selecting work attire that is appropriate for the intended activity and in accordance with WorkSafe BC and any other safety considerations.

The employer relied on this policy to tell employees that they could not wear blue jeans or shorts, apart from casual days for charity and when working in the field. Seems straight forward enough? Not so much. The arbitrator relied, in part, on the collective agreement’s corporate humanism clause, which recognized members “control over one’s working life” and the principle that rules imposed by the employer need to be reasonable. In that regard, the reasonableness of the rule has to appropriately balance the employer’s legitimate business interest versus the employees’ personal rights.

The arbitrator referenced earlier jurisprudence in confirming that the employer must demonstrate that the grievor’s appearance has resulted in a threat to its image and consequent financial loss or at the very least that on the balance of probabilities the employee’s appearance threatens its image and therefore threatens a loss in business to the company. Here, the British Columbia Assessment Authority did not present any such evidence – and lost the grievance. Simply put, the arbitrator stated:

The…permanent imposition of a restriction on wearing blue jeans and short pants to the office on non-field trip days is a rule inconsistent with the Workplace Attire Policy because it fetters employee exercise of good judgment. It substitutes manager judgment for employee judgment. There is no objective evidence [that] wearing blue jeans or short pants to the Kelowna office “threatens or has some prejudicial effect” on the employer’s image.

The decision reminds the reader of this being a consistent debate over the decades, with side burns and hair length in the 70s, earrings by male employees in the 80s and facial jewelry such as nose piercings and tattoos in the 90s.

Unionized employers trying to enforce more formal workplace attire should turn their minds to the actual impact of less formal attire and if negative, to accumulate evidence of it.

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