Dress codes that dictate what is and what is not appropriate company attire are common methods of ensuring employees maintain a level of professionalism and functionality within the workplace.
Certain workplaces follow dress codes to ensure their staff meet standards that best represent the values of the company. Some businesses may set down dress codes to ensure the health and safety of their employees.
Despite the rationale for a dress code policy, employers must do their best to ensure that it does not infringe upon any religious beliefs their employees may hold.
Without putting undue hardship on the workplace, employers should work with employees whose creed would be infringed upon by a dress code to look for potential accommodations to ensure workplace requirements do not affect religious practice.
What is undue hardship?
Employers covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code have a duty to accommodate employees to the point of undue hardship.
Undue hardship is an action that causes significant difficulty or expense. In the context of accommodation, an employer reaches the point of undue hardship when the accommodation request would be too great a burden (either operationally, financially, or otherwise) to follow. Or the accommodation may cause major health and safety risks.
What does the law say about dress code policies and religious rights?
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, employers should consider the following when establishing a dress code policy:
- What is the exact nature of the religious or creed observance?
- What is the reason for the uniform or dress code?
- What steps can be taken to accommodate the person short of undue hardship?
- Are there alternatives?
- Are health or safety factors involved?
How do dress codes conflict with religious requirements?
Dress codes in the workplace can go against the creed-based requirements of certain individuals. It is important to remember that the duty to accommodate these creed-based requirements belongs to the employer.
Cultural customs, norms, conventions, and traditions are all considered illegitimate reasons to enforce dress codes upon individuals whose creed requires that they dress atypical to organizational code.
To what extent should an employer accommodate religious requirements?
Organizations are only required to accommodate legitimate religious necessities; this does not include style preferences.
For example, a business that has a dress code policy prohibiting headwear of any kind must make accommodations for an employee who wears a hijab or a turban as part of their religious observance.
However, the business is allowed to request that the employee wear a hijab or turban that is more consistent with the employer’s dress code. Clothing preferences based solely on a protected ground, such as creed, are the only parts of an employee’s attire that would receive human rights protection.
What about dress code policy exemptions and health & safety risks?
Despite these protections, safety in the workplace can be a legitimate concern when accommodating creed-related dress requests.
Under the law, employers have an obligation to protect the health and safety of their staff. Due to this, accommodating dress code exemptions that present a significant health and safety risk may be considered undue hardship.
In some cases, workplace clothing/equipment requirements with a health and safety rationale may constitute a necessity that cannot be accommodated for, requiring additional attention.
How can employers accommodate safety concerns with legitimate religious necessities?
In cases where dress requirements are found to be legitimately necessary for health and safety reasons, the employer may still be obliged to seek accommodation for the employee. One way could be to look at transfers for the employee that can accommodate their needs.
An employer must consistently apply health and safety standards to all employees. You should establish a flexible and accommodating dress code policy. Doing so can help you avoid legal ramifications and ensure all employees feel comfortable and safe while at work.
Do you need help creating a dress code policy for your workplace?
A workplace dress code policy that infringes on the religious rights of your employees is a violation of the Human Rights Code and may expose you to discrimination claims.
Get Peninsula’s expert support to create a dress code policy that complies with the law and protects your business. Whether you are looking to develop a dress code policy or update your employment contracts, we can help. Our advisors can help you create company policies, and with any other HR, health and safety, or employee management matters that may arise. To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call an expert today at 1 (833) 247-3652.
Ethan Ford is a legal intern at Peninsula Canada. He intends to pursue a career in employment law after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2025. Ethan is fascinated with how the law functions in Canada and the day-to-day interactions between employers and employees.