People Management

Work Dress Codes: Questions to Consider

By Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair November 23 2020

 So you’re a manager and believe dress codes are unnecessary? Are your employees allowed to show up in their pajamas or with dirty hair and fingernails? If not, well, there’s no doubt you at least have an implicit dress code.


I worked in a restaurant a few years ago. As in most chains, there was a mandatory uniform: black pants, white shirt and apron.

Despite instructions being readily available to employees, our manager routinely intervened regarding our appearance. When it wasn’t about non-standard shoes, the manager would take issue with the size of someone’s earrings or something else.

Dress codes cover a multitude of areas, from clothes to hairstyle, from shoes to jewelry, and even nail polish.

This article deals with considerations you might find useful in creating or revising your own dress code.

Why Have a Dress Code Policy?

Dress codes serve many purposes:

  • Brand image;
  • Client-facing presentation;
  • Hygiene and cleanliness; and
  • Workplace safety.

Essentially, dress codes function as boundaries that eliminate gray areas.

Uniforms and Dress Codes: What’s the Difference?

Employers have the right to enforce a dress code or, to be even stricter, a uniform. A uniform is a specific, determined article of clothing that everyone has to wear. A dress code is more like a set of standards about personal appearance which dictates what can and can’t be worn. Less stringent than a uniform, a dress code can vary in strictness according to the employer.

Some might ask their staff to dress  “business casual.” Others may explicitly list acceptable and unacceptable clothes (e.g., no jeans, no low necklines, no pajamas 🤪).

What Image Do You Want to Project?

Every business has two images: the one it wants to project, and the one that it’s actually projecting.

If you want those to be the same, even the most seemingly inconsequential choices must reflect your values as an organization.

If you claim to be open to difference, but all your employees have to have the same haircut and no visible tattoos, you’re not walking the talk. Such an incoherence could put off employees and clients alike. It’s better to be consistent.

Ikea makes inclusion and diversity their hobbyhorse. For the sake of consistency, they require employees to wear jeans and their trademark yellow shirt; but apart from that, everyone can show their colors as they wish. Many employees display tattoos, piercings and dyed hair.

Some Questions to Ask Yourself: 

  • What are our values as an organization?
  • Does our dress code reflect these values?
  • Does it match with the values of our target clientele?
  • Are we more conservative or avant-garde?
  • Do we want our employees to be uniform or to show their colors?

What About Your Staff’s Comfort?

Comfort impacts productivity. When it comes to dress codes, two things have to be factored in for comfort: temperature and clothing choices.

Temperature and Energy

It’s said that when it’s too hot, employees will tend to feel more tired; when it’s too cold, they’ll be more restless and distracted.

Superstores where clients shop with their coats on typically keep temperatures very low. Since wearing a coat often isn’t an option for employees who work there, the dress code has to take this into account.

The Consequences of Clothing Choices

The same goes for comfortable clothing options. According to Les effrontés stylist Karine Dubé, who specializes in corporate services, employees have to be comfortable in their clothing to be fully focused and motivated at work. Think about those barmaids who have to work in heels and short skirts.

Some Questions to Consider: 

  • Is our uniform adapted to our staff’s various tasks?
  • Does appearance take too much precedence over our employees’ comfort?
  • Could our dress code be considered discriminatory?
  • Would I be willing to comply with our dress code?

What About Workplace Safety?

Workplace safety is regulated by CNESST. In industries like construction and warehousing, hard hats and steel-toed boots have been made mandatory to protect workers. But in other occupations with less obvious hazards, uniforms are sometimes out of phase with the work itself.

Once, while closing the restaurant I worked at, I was taking out trash bags filled with glass, mainly empty and broken bottles. I cut my bare leg deeply with a wine bottle.

Many workers in the restaurant industry have to carry heavy loads, such as cases of wine bottles or ice trays, on a regular basis. But their dress codes don’t always provide for adapted footwear, and skirts are often mandatory for waitresses.

Some Questions to Consider: 

  • Does our dress code comply with safety regulations?
  • If my employees have to perform potentially dangerous tasks, are they provided with clothing and equipment fit for the purpose?
  • Does our dress code account for temperature variations? For example, does our restaurant’s service staff wear the same clothes for working indoors and outdoors in the sun?
  • Do employees who stand all day have comfortable and ergonomic shoes?

Do You Know the Legal Requirements Surrounding Dress Codes?

Let’s start by answering the question: Are employers legally allowed to enforce uniforms or dress codes? The answer is yes, but under a number of conditions:

  • Minimum wage employees can’t be made to pay for a uniform. 
  • The same goes for “special clothes” that are mandatory.
  • Employers can’t obligate employees to buy clothes or accessories they sell, e.g., clothing stores can’t demand that their staff only wear clothing from that store during their shifts.
  • Dress codes and uniforms must be justified in view of the tasks required of staff and be in proportion with the purpose thereof.
  • Organizations must have legitimate and important reasons for enforcing a clothing policy, and take care to “infringe their staff’s fundamental rights as little as possible.”
  • Dress codes can’t be updated instantly; amendments must first be drafted and submitted.
  • Dress codes have to be the same for everyone; otherwise, they’re discriminatory.

Defuse Delicate Situations Before They Happen

So? Still think you don’t need a dress code?

It may be risky to trust only in your employees’ good judgment and to believe that enacting an actual dress code is a waste of time. To avoid delicate situations, take the time to ask yourself the right questions and draft a dress code. This will be time well spent: it will allow you to clarify your expectations and reassure your team. Conversely, it could be difficult to reprimand one of them for breaking an unwritten rule.


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