07/18/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/18/2016 05:59 EDT

Dress code battle in B.C. Assessment Authority office

It was a long battle for a short victory.

And in arguing for the right to wear blue jeans and short pants to work, employees of the B.C. Assessment Authority's Kelowna office cited their employer's own words as a weapon: "We are trusted to value B.C."

Maybe. But could they be trusted to choose appropriate workplace attire?

"It is offensive to their professionalism to tell them they cannot wear certain articles of clothing," arbitrator James Dorsey wrote in summing up the employees' position.

"It is simply a situation of certain managers, with Kelowna as the epicentre, wanting to make the employees in their image."

'Shockingly casual'

Dorsey's decision traces the history of Canadian workplace dress code grievances, from battles over sideburn length to rules forcing airline employees to wear matching black belts and shoes.

And in the midst of it all is the assessment authority's struggle to have its unionized employees come to a clothing consensus without a specific collective agreement provision on workplace attire.

"Personal attire and grooming affect others' perceptions of the person and the organization for which an employee speaks," Dorsey writes.

"Age, social norms, cultural, generational, health, lifestyle, finances and other influencing factors together with personal style contribute to a person's choice of self-appearance."

B.C. Assessment has a head office in Victoria and 15 offices around the province. From the organization's inception until 2010, no provincial workplace attire policy was necessary.

That meant each office developed its own style according to regional fashion: blue jeans were cool in Dawson Creek, golf shirts and occasional short pants cut it in Kelowna and business casual was good for formal meetings.

Manager Laura Boyle testified that concerns did come up, but nothing over the top: "Bare feet; low-cut tops for females; a Bob Marley hoodie; a miniskirt; and a T-shirt with an inappropriate logo." 

And then there was Vernon, where Boyle recalled the attire as "shockingly casual."

But in 2010, according to another manager, the Kelowna office decided "to step up our game."

Numerous emails, committee meetings, edicts and friendly and not-so friendly reminders later, blue jeans and short pants were outlawed.​

Mr. Clean: sideburn superstar

In arriving at his decision, Dorsey considered union dress code arbitration precedent dating back to 1972 and an Ontario fire department that suspended a firefighter nicknamed "Mr. Clean" over the length of his fastidiously kept sideburns.

"What possible value is there in a rule requiring sideburns halfway down the ear?" the arbitrator in that case wrote.

In another '70s case, a fashion-conscious employee wanted to wear his hair over his collar. A grocery clerk in a different situation was suspended two days for having a "well-groomed, closely clipped goatee."

In 1977, an arbitrator ruled against an airline for ordering flight attendants to wear black shoes and black belts. Another male airline employee won the right to sport an earring in 1986.

In 1995, a female librarian fought to wear shorts. A car rental agency was forced to rescind a ban on facial jewelry. And in 2012, an Ontario teachers union overturned a ban on blue jeans.

Kilts, Hawaiian shirts, running shoes?

B.C. Assessment argued that it has the right to establish reasonable workplace attire rules fitting with the organization's professional image.

"Some employees might not know what appropriate business casual attire is or might deliberately push the envelope by dressing in articles of clothing like a kilt, Hawaiian shirt and running shoes," Dorsey writes.

"The employer submits it is not appropriate to dress like a tourist because the office is in a tourist location any more than it is appropriate to dress like a farmer because the office is in farm country."

In the end, Dorsey found the original workplace policy was deliberately designed to trust the "good judgment" of employees to wear appropriate and professional attire.

As such, he found the ban on blue jeans and shorts to be inconsistent with that policy: "It substitutes manager judgment for employee judgment."

The ruling only applies to the Kelowna office.

Dorsey says he couldn't glean from the evidence why the issue was so contentious to begin with.