Erica Pinsky



Popular Fashion and Respectful Workplace Culture

I am not a prude. Those that know me would laugh at the suggestion. However, lately I find myself on the far right when it comes to the topic of appropriate attire in the workplace. I am, in fact, now advising all of my clients to adopt and enforce a Dress Code.


How come? Well, quite honestly, I often find myself in a difficult position these days. More than once, I have arrived at the corporate offices of a client with whom I am working to promote respectful workplace culture (the cornerstone of which is a workplace free from discrimination and harassment), and the first thing I see is … cleavage.

That was my experience recently at the front desk of a downtown client. Despite being a heterosexual woman, I found it hard to focus on telling the young female receptionist what I was doing there - I was so distracted by her plunging neckline. I was standing, she was sitting, and there was just no way to avoid it. I looked down and there they were. It is like when you pass a car accident while driving; you don't want to look but you just can't help yourself.


In spite of my distraction, I managed to communicate my purpose and the receptionist signed me in. Then she stood up to lead me to my destination. At that point, I was further distracted by her long and shapely bare legs, which culminated in her stiletto heeled sandals. I followed her, not paying any attention to where I was going, wondering when "micro mini skirts" had come back into style.


Would that this was an isolated incident. I first became concerned about appropriate workplace attire a couple of years ago when I was working with a client to develop respectful standards of behaviour in a department that had been plagued with conflicts. The last item on our agenda was the issue of appropriate dress in the workplace. The employees explained that there was a corporate dress code, but that nobody really followed it. General discussion ended when one young woman announced that they were all okay with the issue of dress and it wasn't a problem for them. She stood up and turned to go. Clearly visible between her low rise pants and her cropped top, was a large tattoo that obviously didn't end where her pants started. What floored me was the fact that she had just finished telling me that there were absolutely no issues with dress code in this workplace. It was apparent that from her perspective, showing a lot of skin at work felt comfortable and perfectly appropriate.


Then there was the labour conference I attended last year. As I settled in my seat, I looked around for a familiar face. My search was interrupted when I found myself transfixed by the protruding breasts of the woman at the table behind me. Her low cut, transparent blouse called out to me, "look here, look here." So I did, repeatedly, throughout the day's program. I couldn't help wonder, as I perused the mostly male audience, what the guys thought about this.


My speculation on "what the guys thought" was clarified when I ogled the receptionist that day at my client's office. I asked my male client if there was a corporate dress code. There wasn't. He looked at me and said, "I know why you are asking. It's so hard. We have casual business attire here and young people now, well, you know popular fashion." He was concerned about the clothing choices of the new receptionist, but he wasn't sure how to talk to her about it. He had raised the issue with his higher-ups, and some of his male bosses didn't want to make an issue of it, while others didn't see what the issue was.


This workplace allowed casual dress, however, did not clearly define what casual business attire means. What I find interesting is that the casual rule for men usually results in men coming to work wearing a sport shirt and slacks, while women often end up looking like the scantily clad receptionist. I never see men wearing muscle shirts and super tight pants or short shorts in the "casual" workplace.

In this situation, my client did think there was a problem. Unfortunately, he felt uncomfortable as a man having to have that kind of conversation with a young woman. So the result was that he procrastinated. Among other things, he told me he was worried that he would end up with a harassment charge just for raising the issue.


Let's think about that for a moment. Suppose he decides to sit down with this female employee and tell her that she is dressing inappropriately. What does he mean inappropriately? Well, too revealing. Her response might well be, "…and why are you looking anyway, you letch." Without a workplace guideline around which to structure the conversation, I would argue that the manager's fear is well placed.


So what is an employer to do? For me the answer is simple. Employers have a statutory obligation to provide a respectful work environment free from discrimination and discriminatory harassment. Sex harassment is a type of discriminatory harassment. As an employer, you are putting yourself in a risky position if you allow your employees to come to work dressed in a manner that encourages others to think of them as sex objects. And the reality is that popular fashion today encourages women to dress as if they work in a strip club. 1


Unless your workplace is a strip club, your organization needs to make a clear statement about professional work attire. You cannot afford to assume that the women that work for you know what professional attire looks like. Clearly, as the examples I have shared with you here illustrate, they don't. There is a multi-billion dollar fashion industry telling women that being sexy is where it's at. Even the gender neutralizing suit has been reinvented with camisoles, tight scoop neck t-shirts, and low cut blouses that emphasize décolletage.


Human rights law in Canada differentiates between private and public arenas. It is specific in the areas to which it applies: employment, provision of goods and services, and housing. The law requires a different standard of behaviour at work, and it is the employer's responsibility to ensure that all employees understand that the difference exists, and exactly what that difference is.


In my last newsletter, I argued that it makes good business sense to build a respectful workplace culture, and to define workplace behaviours that are consistent with that respectful culture. Professional workplace attire is one of the behaviours which employers need to consider in the context of a respectful workplace culture. If an employer accepts or condones any behaviour which creates a sexualized atmosphere at work, that employer is not meeting his/her statutory obligations in human rights law. The result is often the creation of a poisoned work environment (which, in law, is defined as fundamentally disrespectful to both woman and men). In addition, as a 2005 joint study by Queen's University and the University of Maryland confirmed, this type of environment has negative implications for the functioning of teams and their ultimate performance. 2


If you are interested in having a respectful and productive workplace then you need to give some thought to appropriate and professional business attire. You need to define what that looks like in your workplace, and then either adopt a separate dress code, or include language about appropriate attire in your Code of Conduct. This latter option is the approach I take with my clients.


One crucial issue to consider when designing your policy is how to manage those individuals who do not conform to the established standard. As I learned from my experience, realistic fears may prevent managers from taking the appropriate action. It is important to design a process that will allow this gender sensitive issue to be handled appropriately by an individual that feels comfortable and is empowered to do so.


As with any other behavioural expectation, once you have adopted your guideline, it should be incorporated into all new employee orientation, so that every new employee is familiar with corporate expectations with respect to clothing at work. Then, once this expectation has been clearly defined and explained, it must be monitored and enforced, just as any other workplace behaviour would be.


If you already have a dress code, you should not just assume that it is working for you. As we have seen, that is often not the case. It is important to review your existing policy and determine whether or not it is being consistently applied … and enforced.


In today's competitive business environment, a focused, productive work force is an employer's greatest asset. Do you want your employees focused on the business scoop or on their co-workers plunging scoop neck? Make a decision to promote a respectful workplace culture that includes a clearly defined dress code and ensure your employees can stay focused on your bottom line.



 1. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, 2005

 2. Harassment takes toll on Bottom line: Study, the Globe and Mail, Friday June 17, 2005


Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying