Appropriate work wear- what are your rights?

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The world is changing, and what was normal many years ago may not be anymore. So, what does that mean for what counts as appropriate wear in the workplace? Should you be able to wear traditional clothes or your afro at work? Gugulethu Mhlungu finds out. Pictures: XX

As of the country’s very recent history of discrimination and inequality, the issue of diversity and tolerance, particularly in the workplace, remains an ongoing and difficult matter. Every so often, the national conversation is once again about what is and isn’t appropriate for school and the workplace, with accusations that some institutions refuse to change. In June 2016, the #RespectTheDoek hashtag trended as South Africans rallied around then eNCA journalist Nontokobeko Sibisi who alleged that a piece she worked on had been cut because she wore a doek. A few months later, the learners at Pretoria Girls High School protested their school policies that they felt discriminated against black hair, which resonated for many who had gone through similar at school and/or at work.

Times are a changing

Zimasa Qolohle Mabuse, head of legal for a fintech company and founder of the Corporate Canvas – a magazine for young professionals, says: “The starting point to understanding what is appropriate at work is your company’s code of conduct. All companies should tell their employees what is appropriate and when, which means it should also tell you if casual Fridays are a norm and if so how. In some workplaces, casual can be shorts and open shoes, while n others it could mean jeans and a blazer.” Zimasa says another important thing to understand is the sector or industry you are in. “Some industries have a high level of decorum and are considered to be very traditional. Examples of conservative and traditional industries include the legal fraternity, the financial sector (banks, insurance, asset managers) and the management sector. In these sectors, it’s not uncommon to have codes of conduct stipulating no skirts shorter than five fingers above the knee, that shoulders must be covered, and you must wear a blazer in a meeting and/or dark colours or black for court appearances or when meeting clients. On the other hand, creative industries such as the media, advertising and even medicine (where comfort is important) allow more business casual attire and flexibility. Industries where people can or do work from home or work flexitime are also responding to those changes.” Zimasa says what is allowed or not can also be determined by seniority within an organisation, but advises that the best thing to do, if you are unsure, is to ask.

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Company policy and the law

Zimasa cautions that no company policy can ever be higher than the Constitution. “Company policy can never go against your individual rights.” South Africa is lucky in that it has a robust and progressive constitution that outlines and protects various rights. A key feature in South African law is its broad anti-discrimination laws such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 and the Bill of Rights. Under cultural rights, the Bill of Rights states: “Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.” It goes on to say: “Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language.” Phephelani Dube, an independent legal expert, says: “While the Constitution is quite broad, none of the rights in it are unlimited. Rights can be limited as long as the limitation is not discriminatory and fair. That is to say the law works by balancing and limiting rights which means some of your rights can be justifiably limited to ensure that other people can enjoy their rights. Reasonable would be on a case-by-case basis, and in the instance of workplace conduct and codes it would be unreasonable for a company to say umbhaco (Xhosa traditional skirt) is not appropriate, but allow kilts. A limitation is only reasonable when it is uniform. So, you can’t say that Afro hair is not acceptable, but allow other kinds of natural hair.” Phephelaphi also points out that sometimes a limitation on your cultural expression is reasonable depending on the nature of the job. “In mining, workwear is focused on safety and thus a ban on cultural wear would be justified because it doesn’t comply with the health and safety requirements.” In a situation where you feel that a ban on certain styles of hair or dress is unjustified, Phephelapi has sobering insight: “In general, the courts are reluctant to interfere. So, the law is mostly in favour of companies. This means employees have very little leeway in this regard. But, once you have exhausted the internal company processes, you can approach the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) who may refer the matter to the Equality Court.”

To the future

“Some company policies need to develop more and become flexible. There are wonderful ways in which we can incorporate cultural expression and dress into the workplace. You can wear a printed blazer, suit or doek which can be both beautiful and formal,” says Zimasa. And lastly, she cautions that diversity is the norm and the new working professionals who are socially conscious of their rights, offer new challenges for the established way of doing things.

Useful resources:

You can find the Bill Of Rights here justice.gov.za/legislation/constitution

CCMA: ccma.org.za or contact the national office on 011 377 6650