Mar 17, 2016 | For Employees

Are Restaurant Dress Codes Illegal or a Job Requirement?

Right on time for International Women’s Day, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released its policy position on gender-specific dress codes. The policy is particularly relevant to the hospitality industry, as sexualized dress codes are often found in places such as restaurants and bars. The release of this policy, coupled with the passing into law of provisions that expand the Occupational Health and Safety Act’s (OHSA) definition of “workplace harassment” to include “workplace sexual harassment”, should have many employers rethinking their dress code.

What aspects of a dress code are problematic?

The OHRC’s policy position is not that employers cannot have and enforce dress codes. Rather, employers can have dress codes, as long as they do not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Code”). For example, dress codes can be necessary to ensure employees in customer service look presentable. A dress code becomes problematic when it is based on stereotypes or sexist ideas of how a woman or man should look. Therefore, requiring all employees to wear black, clean clothes, and to be properly groomed does not run afoul of the Code. Expecting women to wear high heels, short skirts, tight clothing or low-cut tops, is a different story. For an employer to defend a dress code, they must prove that any sex-based difference in the dress code is legitimately linked to the requirements of the job.

Why are these dress codes problematic?

In addition to reinforcing sexist stereotypes, sexualized dress codes may negatively impact a particular gender by imposing more stringent requirements on female employees than male employees. For example, requiring women to wear high heels for long shifts while their male counterparts wear more comfortable shoes places a burden on female employees. Another discriminatory practice could be punishing a female employee for not abiding with a sexualized dress code by sending her home or reducing her shifts.

Sexualized dress codes may trigger discrimination on other prohibited grounds under the Code such as race, religion and gender identity and expression. The OHRC encouraged employers to design flexible dress codes, with a range of options so that employees can choose without feeling pressured or excluded.

Finally, the OHRC expressed concern that sexualized dress codes can make a female employee more vulnerable to unwanted sexual attention, sexual harassment and sexual violence from both customers and co-workers. Given the anticipated changes to OHSA, reviewing existing dress codes may help employers meet new obligations to prevent and protect against sexual harassment.

How does this policy affect me?

The OHRC’s policy position, along with the upcoming changes to OHSA, shows that gender discrimination and sexual harassment is becoming increasingly important. Employers should be reconsidering current practices and policies, as their obligations to employees in this regard are increasing. As the Executive Director of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre said, “Excellent customer service doesn’t have a cup size.” If your employer suggests otherwise, you should consult a lawyer to discuss your legal rights.

If you have any questions about your legal rights in the workplace, one of our lawyers would be happy to meet with you. Please call 647-204-8107 or email [email protected].

The material and information in this blog and this website are for general information only. They should not be relied on as legal advice or opinion. The authors make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of any information referred to in this blog or its links. No person should act or refrain from acting in reliance on any information found on this website or blog. Readers should obtain appropriate professional advice from a lawyer duly licensed in the relevant jurisdiction. These materials do not create a lawyer-client relationship between you and any of the authors or the MacLeod Law Firm.



Recent Posts

Paid Sick Leave? Sort of

With the numbers of COVID-19 cases rising again, especially in the GTA, many employees are asking me as a Toronto employment lawyer what happens if they become sick and they are forced to stay home for 14 days. Following the end of the Canada Emergency Response...

read more

Toronto Office

702 - 2 Bloor Street West,
Toronto, ON M4W 3E2

Barrie Office

277 - 92 Caplan Avenue,
Barrie, ON L4N 9J2

Collingwood Office

220 - 1 First Street
Collingwood, ON
L9Y 1A1



+1 (888) 640-1728


(866) 883-8445


[email protected]

Toronto Office

702 - 2 Bloor Street West, Toronto ON M4W 3E2

Barrie Office

277 - 92 Caplan Avenue, Barrie ON L4N 9J2

Collingwood Office

220 - 1 First Street, Collingwood, ON L9Y 1A1


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!