By Wallis Snowdon & Jordan Omstead

Legal experts are cautioning Albertans to know their rights, especially around dress-code discrimination, after a woman says she was fired from a north Edmonton Honda dealership because of her outfit.

Caitlin Bernier has filed a human rights complaint against Alberta Honda after she claims she was told her long-sleeve crew neck and dress pants violated the company dress code and made her male colleagues uncomfortable.

“I was fired for wearing an ‘inappropriate outfit’ to work,” Bernier wrote in her complaint. “This was the same outfit I was hired in.”

Experts say Bernier’s dismissal is a case study in the constrained, complex rights of probationary workers, Alberta human rights law and the ongoing discrimination women face in male-dominated industries.

“I just feel super discriminated against over this whole thing,” said Bernier, who was a recent hire and enrolled in the company’s employee training program.

“I feel really wrongfully treated. I don’t deserve to lose my job because of a shirt.”

Management with Alberta Honda denies Bernier’s claims of discrimination.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, management said its office dress code is enforced equally and no employee would be fired for a single violation.

‘Upset and embarrassed’

Bernier, 20, said she was fired from the dealership at 9525 127th Ave. on Sept. 11 after a female colleague approached her in the office.

She said she was told her shirt was see-through, violated the company dress code and was making some male colleagues uncomfortable. She later told CBC News she had worn the same outfit to her job interview at the beginning of the month and was told it fit the store’s business-casual expectations.

Bernier said her female colleague told her to cover up with a sweater or go home. Instead, Bernier met immediately with an internal human resources representative.

“The first thing the HR lady said was, ‘Her shirt’s fine, it’s not see-through at all,'” said Bernier, whose Facebook post recounting the incident has generated more than 14,000 comments since Sept. 11.

“I felt really uncomfortable. I was upset and embarrassed.”

Bernier said the human resources person allowed her to leave until her manager returned to the office. She went home.

About an hour later she got a call from the dealership’s general manager. He told her she was fired because of a dress code violation, Bernier said.

“He never saw my outfit,” she said. “I never got my chance to speak for myself.

“I said, ‘I’ll drive to the store and I’ll come meet with you right now,’ and he said, ‘This conversation’s over,’ and hung up on me.”

Bernier said she had taken the job two weeks earlier and was the only woman on a sales staff of about a dozen.

“I really loved the people that I worked with. They were awesome until that day — I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I just think there’s a little more inequality in workplaces than people think.”

Company responds

In its statement, Alberta Honda said an employee would only be fired after repeated warnings — and the decision would “never be based on gender.

“It’s only if an employee refuses to comply with the dress code when given an opportunity, if they continued to violate the dress code on multiple occasions or if there were other issues surrounding their performance that we would consider taking further action,” the statement reads.

“We have reviewed the situation in question and are confident that our managers dealt with it appropriately given all of the circumstances involved.”

Bernier said she never received any previous warnings from management. She assumed she was on probation but was not informed about the terms of her probationary period, she said.

“No one evaluated my performance. It all happened at once,” she said.

“Of course you can dismiss someone on probation, but there still has to be a valid reason.”

‘A very strong case’

Calgary labour lawyer Sarah Coderre, who has represented clients in sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal claims, said corporate dress codes must be clear, consistently enforced and that violations must be proportionately punished.

Based on Bernier’s account, none of those criteria appear to have been met, Coderre said. Bernier doesn’t know how she violated the dress code or if the policy exists in writing.

“I think she would have a very strong case for wrongful dismissal,” said Coderre, a managing lawyer at Taylor Janis LLP.

“You always have human rights as an employee. Under the common law, probationary workers are still entitled to just cause.”

Eric Adams, a constitutional lawyer and vice dean of the University of Alberta’s faculty of law, said the legal rights of probationary workers are complex. Three overlapping legal policies regulate their rights: the Alberta Employment Standards Code, Alberta common law and the Alberta Human Rights Act.

Under the employment code, which provides “baseline rules” for employment in Alberta, the employer has no obligation to provide notice of dismissal to workers who have been employed for fewer than 90 days, Adams said. However, common law protects certain employee rights no matter what, he said.

Under common law, workers can be granted compensation for wrongful dismissal if it’s determined that the employer acted in bad faith.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a good reason for terminating people,” Adams said. “You can still terminate them for reasons that are your own. And they may be seen as illogical or unfair but you have to do so in a way that respects the employee’s dignity.”

He said it’s unlikely, however, that Bernier would ever be awarded a large settlement in civil court. Short-term employees are owed “almost nothing” under common-law damages, he said.

Bernier’s best legal avenue is a human rights claim, he said. An increasing number of cases have grappled with dress-code discrimination in the workplace, he said.

“I think the cases are starting to recognize that, yes, that kind of treatment is, in fact a form of gender discrimination,” he said.

“This is an interesting case because it’s almost a sort of flip of that.”

Male-dominated sales industry

Katherine Breward, a researcher in labour market discrimination and an associate professor in the business department at the University of Winnipeg, said the incident is evidence of the endemic “sexualization and policing” of women’s bodies in the workplace.

Women in an industry where they are outnumbered four to one can be seen as a threat, she said.

“When we tokenize people, when they’re the only member of the group, we perceive their behaviour in exaggerated ways,” Breward said. “The existing stereotypes about women are magnified.”

Companies must have clear and well-articulated policies around dress codes and sexual harassment, she said.

The manager, Breward said, should have verified what happened with Bernier and should have spoken to his staff about how it’s inappropriate to sexualize their colleagues.

“A lot of the prevention of harassment and discrimination happens before an incident. It happens because you have well-developed policies, you have a good culture and you enforce respectful communication.”

Originally posted by CBC News on 09/16/2020.