A news story caught our attention recently. The University of Quebec in the Outaouais (UQO) commissioned an instructional video for university employees instructing them on how to dress for work and then emailed it out to staff.

The four-minute video, hosted by a Gatineau based fashion stylist, provided such tips as don’t dress like you’re on vacation and “do not be in seduction style.” The stylist also advised that staff should not wear worn-out clothes or “cheap accessories.”

While we specialize in Ontario and not Quebec law, this piece certainly caused us to raise our eyebrows. Backlash from the professors at UQO has also seemingly caused the video to be taken down.  UQO says that the video was intended to provide “inspiration” and now say that “people are free to wear what they want.”

Can you tell your employees how to dress?

All this begs the question, can you tell your employees how to dress? Or provide them with helpful accessorizing tips? Obviously, some jobs come with uniforms or safety equipment that is crucial to doing the job. In these instances, the dress is a job requirement. The law is pretty clear that where a uniform is required, it is a human rights violation to require that male and female employees wear different uniforms.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission advises as follows with respect to gender-specific dress codes:

  • Female employees should not be expected to meet more difficult requirements than male employees;
  • Female employees should not be expected to dress in a sexual way in order to attract clients; and
  • Employers should be able to prove that any sex-based differences with respect to dress codes are legitimately linked to the requirements of the job – if they are not, they are likely discriminatory.

Many employers in the service industry require female employees to wear tiny skirts and plunging necklines. If the employer refuses to allow a female employee to wear the male uniform or vice versa, they would likely be found to be in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

While the issues with the UQO video were different, something like this still has the potential to be discriminatory. While an employer can have a dress code, care needs to be taken that the dress code is justified and that it does not specifically target one gender. The UQO video seemed to speak to women and to place responsibility on women to control any sexual messages they may be sending out. This borders on the troubling and inappropriate “she was asking for it with that outfit” type of justification for sexual violence.

TakeawaysDress codes need to be reasonable and uniformly applied. If, as an employer, you’re going to list a bunch of things you don’t want to see in the workplace, they should not all target women. For example, in addition to strapless tops, open-toed shoes, and short skirts, maybe throw in cut-off shorts, muscle tanks and t-shirts with logos. In general, you want to treat your employees with respect and avoid being overly paternalistic or controlling about things that may not actually matter to your business.

If you have questions about dress codes or a specific situation you’d like to discuss, get in touch!