The Human Rights Commission of Ontario (“HRCO”) very recently clarified its stance on gender-specific dress codes by issuing a policy position on the subject.  The policy takes aim at sexualized dress codes found mainly in the restaurant and bar industries.  Of particular concern to the HRTO were any formal or informal policies requiring women to wear high heels, tight dresses, low-cut tops and short skirts.

While not legally binding, the policy states that employers must “make sure that any uniform or dress code policy does not undermine employees’ dignity and right to fully take place in the workplace because of Code grounds, including sex, gender identity, gender expression and creed (religion).”  Specifically, women should not have more onerous dress requirements than men and should not be expected to dress in a sexualized way for the benefit of customers or clients.

The statements made by the HRCO do not represent a marked change in policy, but merely a restatement of existing policy.  These same principles have been supported by human rights tribunal decisions dating as far back as the 1980s.

The HRCO policy was issued before the implementation of planned amendments to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act aimed at preventing sexual assault in the workplace.  With this restatement of HRCO policy and increased media attention on the subject, employers should be careful when setting formal policy and informal expectations regarding staff dress.

Written with the assistance of Markus Liik, articling student.

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