Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your question here.
I work in a city-based office doing professional services for a large consultancy. In 2020, being locked down for most of the year, I was pretty much rocking a daily uniform of tracksuit pants and ugg boots.
When I finally got back into the office this year, I was so excited to wear real clothes. I am quite fashion-conscious, and I think I dress really well at the office. But my style tends towards bold colours and daring prints, and I definitely stand out amongst the grey suits on Collins Street.
My supervisor was initially dropping “hints” about my workwear, but has now openly told me that he thinks my clothes are too “loud” for a professional setting. Do I have to tone it down?
I’m going to address your question in two parts.
First, there’s the legal stuff: while yes, your boss is legally allowed to set dress codes and standards, there are lines he can’t cross - and Union women have always fought to keep bosses from crossing those lines.
Dress codes cannot discriminate, for example, by requiring people of particular genders to wear particular attire. They can’t force you to wear makeup unless that is also required of the men. Dress and appearance codes also have to be sensitive to people’s religion, race, disability, age, pregnancy and lawful sexual activity.
Guidelines also state that dress codes should be “related to the job” - I have heard of inbound call centres trying to enforce dress standards, but the union members shut that down!
The law does not allow dress codes that in any way jeopardise health and safety. Your boss can’t just decide that PPE doesn’t suit their brand.
But broadly, yes, your employer is allowed to enforce reasonable dress standards to uphold the company’s brand positioning and reputation. However, now we get into the second part of my answer.
Exactly who gets to determine what a “professional” looks like?
There is nothing unprofessional about bright colours, soft fabrics or bold prints. There is nothing unprofessional about curly hair. There is nothing unprofessional about full figures.
Just because some middle-aged, cis-gendered, white, hetero blokes in the 1950s realised they could get away with two pairs of pants and three indistinguishable shirts for the entire duration of their working lives, doesn’t mean the rest of us need to hide our light.
What I’m getting at is that our ideas about desirable dress are quite often laden with cultural baggage and unconscious bias. Your boss is saying, “I guess I’m OK having women in the workplace as long as they still dress like men.” Only - that is not OK.
Because, sure, you could change the way you dress to suit your boss. But what happens when he decides that your black co-worker's hair is unprofessional because it’s not straight? What happens when he tells your trans co-worker not to be so “obvious”? What happens when he decides certain religious garments are unprofessional?
Your boss’ fashion aesthetic is not really the issue here. It’s that he feels confident policing the bodies and the identities of workers. Bring him along to some cultural safety training at Trades Hall stat, and the two of you can start building a workplace that celebrates diversity.
Daria Healey-Aarons is the Lead Organiser for Union Women at Victorian Trades Hall Council
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My supervisor was initially dropping “hints” about my workwear, but has now openly told me that he thinks my clothes are too “loud” for a professional setting. Help!