I recently read news coverage of an employee who was sent to a meeting that he thought “was going to be an informal event — that it was going to be business casual,” only to find himself seated at a boardroom table with none other than U.S. President Barack Obama.  After the meeting, the employee was quoted as follows: “When President Obama walked in the room, I’m looking down at my white polo going, ‘Well, if I would have known this, I would have worn my military blues or at least a suit and tie. . . I admit I was feeling a little underdressed at the moment.”

Despite his surprise (and evidently some embarrassment), the employee, Marvin Lance Futch, apparently managed the situation with class; and photos of the meeting show an attentive-looking (albeit underdressed) Mr. Futch seated at the table in what can only be described as a textbook example of perfect posture.

Although this sartorial faux-pas was the product of an unfortunate miscommunication, it brought to mind some familiar questions that my clients bring to me as an employment lawyer – i.e. questions around dress codes, and the extent to which a company can dictate acceptable wardrobe.  And with milder weather (finally) upon us, and employees putting away heavy winter clothing in favour of lighter spring attire, April marks a good time for organizations to remind employees of what is and is not considered acceptable in the workplace.

The good news for employers is that they have considerable discretion in that exercise.  In that regard, as long as a dress code policy is consistent with applicable human rights legislation (i.e. so as to appropriately accommodate articles of clothing and other items or accessories that must be worn for medical and/or religious reasons) and occupational health and safety considerations, it is largely an employer’s prerogative to dictate standards of acceptable dress in the workplace (and, as applicable, in different departments and different areas within the workplace).

For example, an employer may dictate – and define – any of the following: formal business attire, business casual, semi-casual, casual, “work-wear”, or company uniform.  Because the nature of the workplace and the nature of the job will dictate the appropriate standard, there is of course no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” (pun intended) dress code policy; however, there are a number of “golden rules” of virtually universal application:

  1. Common sense and good judgment: In the same way that employers should exercise common sense in setting a dress code that is appropriate in the circumstances (for example, by not prescribing business-wear for construction workers), employees should ask themselves the question of whether their selected wardrobe for the day is consistent with: (i) the physical environment and functional demands of the job, and (ii) the level of professionalism that the employer expects them to project.
  2. “If in doubt, change it out”: If, as an employee, you look at yourself in the mirror before work and wonder whether your outfit is “too close to the line”, it probably is. Try something else.
  3. “Casual” does not mean “come as you please”: Although many employers permit casual attire (especially on Fridays), employees should not make the mistake of interpreting “casual” as a subjective term.  Objectively, “casual” should not include:
  • Anything that you would wear to mow the lawn or wash the car (e.g. ripped jeans, dirty t-shirts, etc.);
  • Anything you would wear to the gym (e.g. shorts, spandex, sweat-pants, sleeveless shirts, etc.);
  • Anything you would wear to the pool or the beach (e.g. flip-flops, bathing suits, tank-tops, etc.);
  • Anything you would wear to go camping or hunting (e.g. hiking boots, cargo pants, camouflage, etc.);
  • And, finally, anything your mother would disapprove of (e.g. because it’s too loud, too worn, too wrinkled, too dirty, too clingy, or too revealing, or because it includes obscene or inappropriate labels or graphics, etc.)
  1. Allow for the unexpected: As Mr. Futch’s encounter with President Obama reminds us, the work day can be full of surprises.  Accordingly, if your employer permits you to “dress down” for a day that you expect to spend behind closed doors on solitary work, you shouldn’t be dressed down so far that you’d be embarrassed if a client, or the CEO, or a Head of State just happens to stop by.  As awkward as it must have been for Mr. Futch to meet the President while wearing a polo shirt, I’m sure he was glad he hadn’t decided to come to work in jeans and a t-shirt that day.