Controversy over workplace tattoos gets nasty

Tattoed business man carrying laptop

There’s some controversy at the Ottawa Convention Centre this week over tattooed employees.

The CBC and HRM Online report that three workers were locked out of the venue for refusing to cover their ink. One of them, housekeeper Nyeme Williams, has been allowed back after covering her arm with a flesh-coloured sleeve, on which she has written, “My tattoo offends the O.C.C.’s image.” (She means that her tattoo offends the OCC as an organization [not the building], or doesn’t reflect their image, obviously, since an image is inanimate and cannot be offended.) She says she still plans to file grievances later. The other two, Daniel Caissie and Johnny St-Amour, are still at a standoff with their employer (at time of writing).

“We’ve always wanted them to come back to work, but they have to adhere to the employee terms of employment,” said convention centre spokesman Daniel Coates. “Hopefully we can come up with a solution.”

Caissie and St. Amour, whose jobs include moving equipment and furniture, say it’s too hot in summer to work in long sleeves. They also say the policy is “outdated and prejudiced.”

Caissie is quoted as saying, “It took a long time for me to realize the actual psychological effects it was having on me. I realized … that it was actually affecting my self-esteem because it was making me feel — even outside of work — kind of ashamed about the fact that I have tattoos.”

Coates told the CBC, “It is very specifically stated that any visible tattoos have to be covered up when on the floor. And it’s a question of image and public service. We serve the public, and we want to make sure that we project a proper image.”

He also says that the venue is kept at 22 degrees, so it is not, in fact, hot.

According to HRM, until recently, the Human Rights Commission has left dress codes and appearance standards to the discretion of the employer. Recent court decisions in Ontario and Quebec, however, have challenged the right of employers to require tattoos be hidden.

In 2012 the Ottawa Hospital’s dress code requiring staff to cover large tattoos and remove piercings that were not “minimal and conservative” was deemed too restrictive. And in 2009 a judge called a daycare’s policy requiring employees to cover small tattoos, such as of a flower or butterfly, “ridiculous and outrageous.”

I’m of two minds here. While I do think tattoos are a silly thing over which to get into a lather, given how common they are common – I have a few – I also think it should be the right of the employer to set the standard they want to set. If my employers asked me to cover my tattoos – they don’t, even one on my arm that is fairly large – I would cover them. Not everything is a human rights issue. Not everyone is a victim. If being asked to cover your tattoos at work has a measurably negative effect on your self-esteem, I suspect there’s more going on there. But perhaps I am judging too harshly and missing the bigger picture. So, I asked my friend Jenn Hobbs, who is about 80 per cent covered in tattoos, and who works as the director of sponsorship marketing for the Hot Docs Festival, what she thinks of employers requiring staff to hide them.

She said, “I usually cover my tattoos at work because I deal with the corporate sector and I don’t think it would work for me to be showing them off in that setting. Some people do, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. That said, I’ve never actually encountered a policy where covering tattoos was required, and I do think that is discrimination. So, I self impose a tattoo ban, but I don’t think my employer should.”

Well, maybe they wouldn’t have to if everyone was so conscientious.

Some facts on these policies, via HRM Online:

• Canada’s Human Rights don’t protect the right to have and show tattoos, unless they are for religious or cultural reasons.

• The company’s policy must be consistent for all genders and races, but can specify differences between roles. Client-facing staff might have to cover up while warehouse staff do not.

• Asking someone to cover potentially offensive tattoos is acceptable, but a broad-reaching policy might not stand up in court.

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