high heels in the workplaceOn the “heels” of the introduction of a bill in the B.C. provincial legislature by Green Party leader Andrew Weaver that would make it illegal for employers to require different footwear for one gender than another, the B.C. government has banned mandatory high heels in the workplace by amending the footwear regulation under the Workers Compensation Act.

According to a Ministry of Labour press release, the amended regulation:

“ensures that workplace footwear is of a design, construction and material that allows the worker to safely perform their work and ensures that employers cannot require footwear contrary to this standard. To determine appropriate footwear, the following factors must be considered: slipping, tripping, uneven terrain, abrasion, ankle protection and foot support, crushing potential, potential for musculoskeletal injury, temperature extremes, corrosive substances, puncture hazards, electrical shock and any other recognizable hazard.”

Protection against workplace harassment and discrimination already exists in British Columbia through both WorkSafeBC and the Human Rights Code. This new amendment serves to further prevent gender-based discrimination by ensuring that employers not require women to wear high heels in the workplace as it is a health and safety risk.

It is a somewhat sad commentary that this issue is making such headlines and that we require regulatory intervention to address the problem. We know of very few employers that require employees to wear high heels in the workplace. However, this discussion is a good reminder for employers to keep the following tips in mind when determining dress code policies:

1. Determine reasonable dress code requirements, applicable to the job

It is completely within an employer’s rights to set dress code requirements for employees. It is the employer’s discretion to determine what look they want their employees to convey (e.g. professional business attire, business casual, casual) and if there are specific types of clothing they must wear (e.g. white button down shirt, khaki pants, brown shoes). These dress code requirements should not be different between the genders.

If you require employees to wear a uniform or a specified brand of clothing, employers are obligated to provide the clothing to the employee at no charge to the employee, and to clean and maintain it in a good state of repair. Additional information on employer obligations in B.C. can be found here.

2. Setting appearance requirements is fine, as long as they are not discriminatory

Employers are also within their rights to determine overall appearance requirements not tied to what employees wear. Provided such requirements apply to all employees, are not discriminatory and do not create a heavier burden on one gender over another, employers are fine to create such policies.

Examples of gender-neutral appearance requirements are:

  • Employees cannot have visible tattoos while at work.
  • Employees’ hair must be clean and tidy.
  • Employees’ fingernails must be clean and well-manicured.

Examples of discriminatory appearance requirements are:

  • Women must wear makeup, jewelry and nail polish.
  • Women are required to wear their hair down.
  • Men must be clean-shaven.

3. Choice is important

Certain issues are non-negotiable. For instance, if you work in a safety-sensitive environment and steel-toed shoes / boots are required to protect employees’ health and safety, employers can make it mandatory for employees to wear steel-toed shoes / boots. However, where there are no such requirements, giving employees the freedom to choose what they wear, within general boundaries established by the employer, is the most effective.

If we look at the high heels issue, requiring employees to wear high heels in the workplace is wrong as it is not tied to an employee’s ability to do her job. However, if employees can choose the footwear they wear and they choose to wear high heels, then there is no problem, as long as there is no health and safety risk. For example, employers can require shoes to be black. After that, it is up to the employee what type of black shoes they wish to wear.

4. Show examples of appropriate attire and appearance

If you are having trouble describing to employees what your dress code and appearance expectations are, consider creating a “look book” of what is appropriate or inappropriate. Pull together pictures of the look you are going for, provide examples of do’s and don’ts, or provide actual samples of what you would like employees to wear. Some employers have put on fashion shows at work to demonstrate the appropriate look.

Ultimately, after the dress code and appearance conversation ends, the most important factor is to focus on an employee’s ability to do their job. Evaluate employees’ job performance, not the colour of their make-up, the height of their shoes or the colour of their jewelry.

If you have questions about high heels in the workplace or about how to create a dress code policy for your Vancouver-based small business, please contact Clear HR Consulting.

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