ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

Many news stories this year have featured employers whose dress codes were racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory towards employees.

In March, CBC’s Marketplace investigated dress codes for female employees at various restaurant chains in Toronto. The investigation revealed that many female employees felt pressured to wear tight, revealing clothes or risk losing their jobs.

That same month, a black woman was sent home from a Jack Astor’s restaurant when she put her hair in a bun, because it could not fall straight to her shoulders as her employer had requested. In April, a black woman was told to take her box braids out while working at clothing store Zara, because they did not look “professional.”

Where do we draw the line between reasonable employer’s expectations and discrimination?

Of course, workplace dress codes are not necessarily discriminatory: sometimes they are simply a part of the job. For instance, we expect construction workers to wear proper safety attire like helmets and reflective vests at all times. Surgeons wear hospital scrubs so as not to introduce pathogens into the operating room.

Even when it is not strictly required for the job, it is reasonable for employers to want uniforms for their employees, or to ask them to present themselves in a professional manner.

But where do we draw the line between reasonable employer’s expectations and discrimination? Discrimination is evident when ‘unprofessional’ is used as code for a black woman’s hairstyle. It is discrimination when male and female employees are held under different dress standards, specifically when the uniforms for female employees are notably tight, revealing, and uncomfortable. It is discrimination when religious employees are unable to wear their religious clothing. When employees are harmed by dress codes because of their race, gender, religion, or any other aspect of their identity, it is time to make the offending dress codes more inclusive.

Oppressive dress codes in the workplace are wrong for many reasons. Primarily, we all have the right to work in a place where we feel safe and welcome to express our race, religion, and gender.

Secondly, subjecting employees to discriminatory dress codes will undoubtedly produce discomfort. Aside from being wrong, this is detrimental to the business’s productivity. Studies have shown time and time again that happy employees are more productive. One 2010 estimate suggested that disengaged and unhappy employees in America were contributing to a $300 billion loss in productivity.

Finally, an employer that upholds values like equality and religious freedom may find it easier to retain employees. A study showed that, among employees who left their jobs after 18 months or less, 89 per cent did so “due to poor [workplace] culture fit.” Also, 67 per cent of employees “believed that the most important aspect of a job was to have an employer with similar values.”

There needs to be a system in place that allows employees to freely discuss their issues with dress codes and uniforms, without the fear of losing their job.

Therefore, it is important for employers to establish dress codes that makes employees feel safe and welcome.

Rather than simply asking employees to dress professionally, it might make more sense to distribute a clear guideline as to what constitutes professionalism at work. The dress code at Starbucks is exemplary: the rules are simple and explicit. Even though there is room for improvement the rules don’t specify anything about religious attire the dress code is not discriminatory. Many other companies have followed suit, and this is a good start.

For employers who want a cohesive work environment with productive employees, communication is also key this includes listening. If an employee thinks a dress code is racist or sexist, they should be taken seriously. There needs to be a system in place that allows employees to freely discuss their issues with dress codes and uniforms, without the fear of losing their job.

And finally, for employers who truly want to promote professionalism and beneficial workplace values, the first step should be to re-evaluate the policies that are currently in place. If a rule is found to be valuable and fair, the employer should uphold it. If the rule promotes discriminatory power structures though, then it is time for a replacement.

Adina Heisler is a second-year University College student studying English and Women and Gender Studies.

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