Workplace dress codes can be...

Workplace dress codes can be discriminatory against certain races. Here’s how, and what can be done about it.

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By Avreet Jagdev

Over the years, it has become quite common for many work environments to enforce dress codes for their employees. Some workplaces simply ask that employees dress “business professional” or “business casual”, while others require specific colour schemes or entire uniforms. Sometimes, these dress codes are enforced for safety reasons, such as at a construction site or in a doctor’s office. In retail and service workspaces, uniforms are usually required so that employees can easily be recognized by customers and clients. Some aspects of workplace dress codes, however, can be discriminatory against employees from racial or religious minorities. No matter their intent, dress codes function to police and monitor bodies, all under the guise of “professionalism”. This has disproportionate impacts on those who are racialized or of visible minorities. Here are some examples.

‘Professional’ expectations for hair:

It’s no secret that most employers expect their employees to be presentable and professional at all times. But what does it mean to have “professional” hair? Unfortunately, this standard too often leads to bias against curlier hair, specifically, natural Black hair. There are far too many stories of Black employees being reprimanded or even fired from their positions for wearing natural hair styles, such as box braids, to their workplace. Recent studies have found that African American women are the most likely group of people to be discriminated against on the basis of their hair, as well as to be sent home from their workplace because of their hair. This can lead to pressure on Black people to straighten their hair, or avoid ethnic hairstyles that hold great meaning to fit in with their workplace’s “professional” hairstyle expectations.


Certain religions, such as Sikhism or Islam, require hijabs, turban, or other headwear. In these cases, requiring employees to wear a company hat, or other type of headwear, can directly conflict with a person’s ability to practice their religion.

Rules against facial hair:

Some workplaces enforce dress codes that prohibit or limit facial hair, but this is discriminatory against certain religions and cultures in which people cannot shave or are required to keep facial hair.

These are just some examples of workplace dress code policies that can be harmful to certain religious or racial groups. Everyone deserves the rights to be themselves, to practice their religion, and to express themselves through their culture. When workplace dress codes infringe on these rights, it tends to disproportionately impact those who belong to visible minority groups.

So what can be done about it?

A very important aspect to tackling this issue is to learn and spread awareness about it. Because workplace dress codes are so common, it is quite easy to gloss over its negative impacts and implications. By intentionally educating yourself and those around you about the issue, you become part of the solution.

And of course, it’s absolutely imperative that employers commit to more inclusive and equitable practices and policies across the workplace, including expectations around dress code.

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