Know Your Rights If Forced To Dress Sexy At Work

If you’re asked to wear revealing clothing for a job against your will, you aren’t alone.

Know Your Rights If Forced To Dress Sexy At Work

By Mark Swartz


There’s increasing debate over workplace dress codes – especially if women are asked to wear suggestive outfits when men aren’t.

It happens regularly in the serving industry. Waitresses, female bartenders and hostesses are most vulnerable. They may get told to “put on something more revealing, or else.” The reasoning is that it’ll bring in more customers and increase tips.

Do human rights and employment law offer protection against this? It can be a bit murky, but there are ways to fight back when told to dress sexy against your will.


Employers Can Set Reasonable Dress Codes

Workplace policies may attempt to regulate appearance in many ways. They could require employees to wear a uniform or conform to a dress code. Standardizing personal grooming is common, as in prohibiting visible body piercings and/or tattoos.

The legal test is generally whether the demands are “reasonable.” This takes into account such things as community standards, religious accommodation and freedom of expression laws.


What Makes A Dress Code Sexist?

There are two linked principles in play here. One is whether an outfit that the employer demands be worn might degrade or overly sexualize the wearer.

The other is about gender equality. Employers are not supposed to ask one gender of staff to dress strikingly differently than others. (Transsexuals are included in recent legislation). So if all genders are told to show more flesh or wear clingier clothes, there may be extra wiggle room for the employer.


Younger People Are Affected Disproportionately

The problem surfaces mainly for servers in their late teens up to early-thirties. A single statistic tells the story: 22 per cent of Canadians will have their first jobs at a restaurant or bar environment.

Younger workers, eager to start earning a living, are less likely to object when told to loosen their shirt buttons. So are employees beyond their mid-20’s who may know better but depend financially on their serving job.


Court Cases Are Providing More Protections

Here’s an example that seems obvious yet required legal action. It’s usually not acceptable to force female servers in a restaurant to wear bikinis, when male servers can dress in khakis and golf shirts.

That particular case goes back to a 2004 Human Rights Tribunal in British Columbia. If a uniform dress code policy is more difficult to meet for one gender than another, and it can’t be shown to be a legitimate requirement for a job, it’s more than likely discriminatory. Fairness in the workplace needs to be evident.

A more recent case is one in Ontario against a chain of restaurants which ended up providing all staff with a unisex uniform option. Before that they had two separate dress codes for its servers. Women were required to wear a short, sleeveless blued dress and heels or boots, and prohibited from wearing jackets, sweaters or thick tights.


If You Think You’re Facing Dress Code Discrimination

The first thing to do if you feel your job is threatened unless you dress more alluringly is speak about it with a trusted co-worker. Find out discreetly if others feel the same way. So says a provincial Human Rights Commission representative.

Then start keeping a record if the employer is critical of you, or sends you home, for not wearing exactly what they’ve told you to. If a group of people experiencing similar reprimands collectively send a letter to head office (or business owner) outlining their concerns, it may be taken more seriously – and your own job could be less at risk.


Filing A Complaint

If you suffer a workplace penalty like fewer shifts or job loss because you won’t dress sexy enough, it may be time to file an application to your province’s Human Rights Tribunal. They may not be able to get your job back. But you could receive some financial compensation, and the employer may be ordered to change its discriminatory policies.

Uniforms meant to titillate customers may be appealing in certain bars and restaurants. But you have workplace rights: the choice to maintain your dignity at work should be yours.