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Breaking Barriers: Rethinking Formal Dress Codes

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

In today's evolving workforce, inclusivity and diversity are not just buzzwords, but cornerstones of innovative workplaces. However, one aspect that often goes overlooked is the impact of formal dress codes on individuals with disabilities.

A team of employees across various age ranges stand together in business casual clothing (jeans, chinos, shirts with no ties, denim). Text overlaid reads: Breaking Barriers: Rethinking Formal Dress Codes

Formal business attire refers to a specific type of clothing that is considered appropriate for professional settings, particularly in traditional office environments or formal business events. While professional attire trends vary from coast to coast in Canada, formal business attire is generally characterized by its conservative, polished, and professional appearance.

We're exploring how rigid dress codes can inadvertently create barriers to employment for people with disabilities, and why it's essential to rethink and adjust these policies.

1. Limited Accessibility

Traditional formal attire may not be comfortable or feasible for individuals with mobility impairments or certain medical conditions. This can deter otherwise qualified candidates from applying or succeeding in a role.

2. Sensory Sensitivities

Many people with disabilities, particularly those with sensory processing disorders or autism spectrum disorders, may find formal attire, such as ties, uncomfortable or distressing. This discomfort can be a significant barrier to their productivity and well-being at work.

3. Difficulties with Fine Motor Skills

Buttoning shirts, fastening ties, or handling intricate clothing items can be challenging for individuals with fine motor skill difficulties, which are common in various disabilities. This can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

4. Limited Availability of Adaptive Clothing

Formal wear often lacks the adaptability needed to accommodate specific disabilities. For example, individuals who use wheelchairs may find it challenging to find attire that fits comfortably and allows for mobility.

5. Impact on Mental Health

For individuals with mental health conditions, the pressure to adhere to strict dress codes can exacerbate anxiety and stress levels. Being forced to wear uncomfortable clothing can hinder their overall well-being and job performance.

6. Financial Barriers

The cost of purchasing formal attire, which may be worn infrequently, can be a significant burden for individuals with disabilities who may already face additional medical expenses or financial constraints.

7. Reinforcement of Stereotypes

Formal dress codes can perpetuate stereotypes about professionalism, equating it with a specific appearance. This can exclude many talented individuals who may not conform to these standards due to their disabilities.

8. Impact on Job Satisfaction and Retention

Being required to wear uncomfortable or impractical clothing can lead to decreased job satisfaction and, ultimately, higher turnover rates among employees with disabilities.

Redefining Dress Codes for Inclusivity

  1. Flexible Attire Policies: Implement a more flexible dress code that allows employees to choose attire that is both professional and comfortable for them.

  2. Provide Accommodations: Offer support for employees with disabilities to obtain adaptive clothing or provide a stipend to help cover the cost.

  3. Encourage Open Communication: Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs and preferences regarding workplace attire.

Embracing Inclusivity for a Stronger Workforce

By reevaluating and adjusting formal dress codes, companies can create a more inclusive environment where employees with disabilities can thrive. Embracing diversity in all its forms, including how individuals choose to dress, not only benefits employees but also fosters a more innovative, productive, and inclusive workplace culture. Together, we can break down these barriers and build a future where everyone has equal opportunities for success.

Need Help Implementing Inclusive Hiring Practices?

CAN WiN offers FREE accessible recruitment, retention, training, and consulting services for employers in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. We recruit for many different career opportunities, from entry to senior-level positions, on behalf of employers who are committed to workforce inclusion of people with disabilities.


Looking for more detailed information on workplace adjustments?

Job Accommodation Network Logo

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is the leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on job accommodations and disability employment issues. Serving customers across the United States and around the world for more than 35 years, JAN provides free practical guidance and technical assistance on job accommodation solutions, and self-employment and entrepreneurship options for people with disabilities.

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Do you want to be a more inclusive and accessible employer?

Take this 15-minute Disability Inclusive Employer Self-Assessment to gain a deeper understanding of where you’re doing well and where there’s room to improve.

Open Door Group and Presidents Group collaborated on this tool, created from recent international research on practices that truly increase inclusion and retention of people with disabilities in the workplace.


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