Tattoo and piercing discrimination: the next human rights fight?

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The debate around tattoos in the workplace is still ongoing, but one Canadian woman wants to see tattoos and other body modification protected by the human rights code.
 
Edmonton-based Kendra Behringer claims she’s had a resume thrown out in front of her and other forms of discrimination, all because of her visible piercings. She’s launched a petition to have the Alberta Human Rights Act amended to include protection for people with body modifications such as piercings, tattoos.

Behringer told HRM that when she was looking for a customer service job many organizations had policies against visible piercings or non-natural looking dyed hair. She said the stigma against modifications such as piercings and tattoos was reducing as the practices become more mainstream.
 
“I’m trying to make the point that someone’s qualifications is what really matters,” she said. “Most people are worried it’s going to affect business but it won’t have the effect people think it will. No one is going to up and walk out of a store because their server has piercings or tattoos.”

Behringer claims that as long as body modifications don’t pose a health and safety risk on the job, they shouldn’t factor into an employer’s decision to hire.
 
“(People) could choose to get implants or a nose job and it wouldn’t affect their ability to get a job as long as it’s considered within the norm.”
 
Her petition has more than 500 signatures and she’s looking for a politician to sponsor her proposal, but lawyers say she’s unlikely to be successful. Companies can refuse to hire or fire non-unionized workers for any reason so long as it’s not connected to a human rights violation, according to Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute.
 
“Fairness is not a requirement and in fact employers can discriminate against people. What they can’t do is discriminate on the basis of certain prohibited grounds.”
 
Tattoos that are related to race or religion could fall under the protected grounds, but in general the courts have upheld employers’ rights to set a dress code as long. Some recent decisions have shown that a zero-tolerance policy that staff must cover all tattoos will not be upheld, especially if workers have to operate in hot temperatures where long sleeves would be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
 
Donais said there was a “slim to none” chance Ms. Behringer’s campaign would be successful.
 
Read more:
Tattooed worker returns but rules haven’t changed
Tattoo taboo: Can you ask workers to cover up?
 
  • Steve on 2014-06-18 11:33:32 AM

    Seriously? If you've dyed your hair a colour that doesn't naturally occur in nature, installed enough metal that an MRI is impossible, and tattooed every square inch of your body, are you really saying you aren't trying to make a statement that some employers may not be willing to associate their business with?

    I have a right to hire people who best represent my company from a customer service AND an image standpoint. If your tattoos don't represent my desired image then you can bet I'm not going to hire you. You make your choice, and I make mine.

    There are things such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc that are not choices. I shouldn't be (and I'm not) allowed to discriminate on those grounds. But I AM fully within my rights to stand against your CHOICE to depart from a societal standard. You've chosen to make a statement through your personal appearance, and that is your right. Similarly, I have a right to choose to not have you make that statement on behalf of my company.

  • F Turner on 2014-06-18 12:12:16 PM

    It's not a matter of being a choice or not (Religion is a choice) but of being a human right or not. And it is also not a matter of making a statement or not (Males with long hair and females with short hair or a shaved head could also be considered to be making a statement). What this woman wants is that the courts protect tatoos and other body modifications as human rights. If this is accepted by the courts employers will not be able to discriminate against it.

  • Steve on 2014-06-18 1:25:50 PM

    I understand what she wants (ie. the courts to protect her choice of body modification as a Human Right). I just think it's not something that should be protected as a human right. I'd suggest that it should no more be a protected ground than my choice of hairstyle, political affilliation, or which car I drive. There are much more important and pressing issues than how a person with tattoos or piercings is treated.

    By the way, I'd also disagree that religion is a choice. Most (admittedly not all) people would say that they are born into a religion, and do not choose it.

    The over-arching question is really whether our society should see this as a protected human right. My opinion is that it should not.

  • Joanne on 2014-06-18 2:09:47 PM

    I agree with all of the above comments. You make a choice the employer is entitled to his/her choice whether to hire you or not, no one forced you to get piercing or tattoos so why should an employer be forced to hire you?

  • Julie on 2014-06-18 2:17:23 PM

    I agree 100% with you Steve. And as far as her comment that “No one is going to up and walk out of a store because their server has piercings or tattoos.” That is most certainly not true - I have seen first had customers not only walk out of an establishment, but worse, not even go into the establishemnt because the employee was covered in tattoos and piercings and it made them very uncomfortable, so it most certainly can effect the business.

  • Viki Scott on 2014-06-18 2:39:12 PM

    In some sectors body piercings may become a hazard......

  • Anita on 2014-06-19 7:12:47 AM

    I also agree with the statements above. It's all about choice, both sides. My daughter is 21 with pink hair, tattoos and a few piercings. They are choices she made and I think she has yet to feel the consequences of the irreversible decisions. However, she has managed to find work with companies that accept her AS IS. She HAS had to live with hurtful customer comments; the worst, a suggestion by an elderly grandmother, that because of the way she looks, she has shamed her family and is unworthy of our love. To me, she is just my kid in rainbow colour.

  • Tom on 2014-06-19 7:29:27 AM

    I totally agree with Steve. It's about choices and just because you are comfortable with your choice, doesn't mean I should be forced to accept it if I don't want to. What about my own right to choose!

  • F Turner on 2014-06-19 9:38:07 AM

    I don't understand how physical appearance (including tattoos and piercings) can be considered in general as an impediment for good performance at work. The fact that some people may not like the look of other people or may feel uncomfortable around them should not be sufficient ground to deny employment.

  • Joanne on 2014-06-19 10:27:22 AM

    F. Turner - I don't understand your point of view (which of course your are entitled to). You open the door for something like this to be covered under Human Rights then you have defeated the purpose of the Human Rights Code. You are also stating, throw dress codes out of the window, OMG what will the workplace look from your point of view, anything goes.

  • Steve on 2014-06-19 11:56:38 AM

    I think this is the part that F. Turner is missing: Physical appearance may not be an impediment for good performance, but it may be an impediment to the work environment or image that I choose to project for my company.

    I'm not saying that tattoos and piercings make anyone less productive. I'm saying that there are some who make judgements about those with excessive piercings, tattoos and unusual hair colour. When they judge my employee, they inevitably judge my business. I have the right to protect my business image/reputation by hiring someone who conforms to the image I want to project.

    Anita - love your description of your "kid in rainbow colour". You sound like a cool mom.

  • Mary on 2014-06-23 5:43:33 PM

    The Human Rights Code is intended to protect people with "disabilities" defined under the Code. How could anyone argue or conclude that piercings and odd hair color choices makes them disabled?

  • F Turner on 2014-06-24 9:27:25 AM

    The point is that tattoos and piercings can be considered self-inflicted injuries and according to the Human Rights Code -Section 10(1) disability is any degree of malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury. The Ontario Human Rights Commission web site states that disability should be interpreted in broad terms, that it includes a subjective component based on perception of disability and that even minor illnesses or infirmities can be disabilities if a person can show that she was treated unfairly because of the perception of a disability.

  • Mary on 2014-06-24 11:20:17 AM

    Then back to the point that it is not a disability when it is a choice. A person with cancer, diabetes, deaf, or brain injury has no choice in the matter (Considering the question about religion being a choice, of course it is not. I believe in God, and that is my right - an Employer can not treat me adversely because of my sincerely held beliefs.)

  • Kerry on 2014-06-24 1:47:53 PM

    F Turner - the idea behind disability protection legislation is that a disability is a condition out of your control (i.e. depression, alcholism) which prevents you from doing a job as well as a non-disabled person. Social stigma itself is not a disability, which is what you are presenting, since you are not arguing that the piercing or tattoo itself is cause for disability.

    The courts have found that drinking on the job without an attempt at treatment or acknowledgment of addiction is NOT disability; WITH acknowledgment, it is. The difference is, arguably, in the awareness of your lack of control. Considering a body mod as a "self-inflicted injury" worthy of protection is, no offence, garbage - and I say that as a more-pierced-than-average HR professional. The difference is I had the common sense not to get pierced in places that would be visible in biz-caj because I want an office job lifestyle.

    My issues with piercings and tattoos is that they speak to the emotional intelligence of the candidate - I have had people come in clinking when they walked and telling me up-front "I wanted you to know what kind of person I am from the get-go." That's great, I appreciate it, but I'm not going to hire you as a reward for your candour because what you just told me is you put your own ego and agenda ahead of my company harmony and social awareness. I'm not here to validate your (questionable?) choices, I'm here to run a business. It's a matter of fit. If you're the type of person to argue that a mod is a disability, you definitely wouldn't fit in our office environment! Arguments like that make it harder for employers and employees to accommodate REAL disabilities.

  • Ann on 2014-06-24 2:01:23 PM

    This is all about branding and to some extent, health and safety. While on company time, an employer has a right to insist that the employee conform to the brand image, subject to accommodation on the basis of grounds that are protected under the Human Rights Code. This is typically religion (e.g. turban or hijab).

    A "conservative" dress code -- no visible tattoos or piercings -- is part of the brand image. If an individual doesn't like the brand image or chooses not to conform to it, the individual should find a job elsewhere or better yet, become self-employed. There are establishments that prefer employees with a "counterculture" image and where tattoos and piercings are embraced as part of that type of branding.

    Religion has been one of the ancient reasons for terrible discrimination. Our Human Rights Codes were drafted in the immediate post-war era and wisely included religion as a protected ground.

  • Anita on 2014-06-24 2:41:49 PM

    Kerry...Emotional intelligence? What are you suggesting? I think many tattooed/pierced individuals may be affronted by this assumption. I have a tattoo on my foot that I am very happy with. I made that choice as an emotionally intelligent adult a couple of years ago. I am 57 and the ultra conservative company I work for, did not bat an eye. As for the notion of "self inflicted injury" is there a difference then, between individuals who wear their markings with pride versus those who now dearly regret their actions? An alcoholic may likely regret his/her first drink...which at the time was a choice made.

  • F Turner on 2014-06-24 4:39:50 PM

    Would it be then acceptable for an employer to deny employment to someone for NOT having visible tattoos or piercings because the company wants to offer a less conservative image to their customers?

  • Kerry on 2014-06-25 10:55:44 AM

    Anita - I`m suggesting that an individual with visible tattoos who put them in obvious places may not have the emotional intelligence and common sense to fit their lifestyle preferences into the corporate societal norm. I also have a tattoo on my foot - and I wear shoes that cover it at work because it`s not appropriate to show off in my environment. It would detract from my credibility as an professional-looking HR manager. I still would not hire someone with full cuffs who didn`t have the common sense to cover them during an interview when stepping foot into our conservative environment.

    As to the `self-inflicted injury` part, we are still not talking about a disability. You can have stigma due to appearance for many different reasons which lead to the same outcome: lack of employment - that doesn`t mean that all reasons are equal. Even though tattoos and piercings are known to be addictive to some people - still not a disability. You choose where you put that tattoo, with the full knowledge of how society will perceive that. It isn`t a big secret or conspiracy that you weren`t aware of when you went under the needle. It`s time to accept the consequences of your choices.

  • Anita on 2014-06-25 11:10:37 AM

    I just read the HRM Article, "Avoid Chasing Gen Y Away". I think in the near future, companies that want to hire great employees, just may have to change the way that they think and maybe we, as individuals, have to start by not judging the book by its cover.

  • Kerry on 2014-06-26 4:00:05 PM

    You maybe be right; I'm Gen Y thought and I appreciate a little bit of structure and discipline in the workplace - it reminds me that I'm not at home! As Bill Cosby said, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody"!

  • Freedom on 2015-02-07 4:04:50 PM

    I feel as thought this more of a fight for freedom of expression, it's our right as people to have the freedom to express our selves in ways that don't harm others.

    Furthermore i do agree however that there's a time and place to be professional and play the part of professional poser. You wouldn't see me rocking my Mohawk, leather jacket, bondage pants and jamming to some Punk Music whilst doing my job, I'd have my hair back, work shirt on, black dress pants on and black dress shoes on. I can tattoo whatever on my body, have any piercing i want but be the most qualified for the job at hand. Employers have the right to hire who they feel represent their company the best, but to refuse someone a job based on how they look plays into discrimination, and I'm aware it's an employers job to discriminate as it's a completion on your past education and experiences for a the position at hand, but to refuse a qualified individual because they express themselves in a way that you deem to be unacceptable is wrong, you can't judge people on how they look even if it was their choice to look that way.

  • Mustafa on 2015-10-22 12:20:24 PM

    A potential interviewee should have the right to know that visible tattoos or piercinga will not be acceptable before wasting time applying and being interviewed for a job. Other requirements and qualifications normally are mentioned when the position is advertised. Employer's prejudices about appearance should be included.

  • Mustafa on 2015-10-22 12:25:14 PM

    Prospective employees should be told before hand that visible tatoos and piercings are not acceptable, to avoid wasting the time and effort to apply and be interviewed for a job. Necessary qualifications are commonly included in position advertisements. This should include employer's prejudices against visible body adornments.

  • Shine on 2015-12-03 2:45:32 AM

    You must have the rights.

  • john on 2016-11-28 8:53:29 PM

    Yo yo thankful for de rad debate really helped

  • Mustafa on 2015-12-03 5:25:05 PM

    Very Good! Most of the above explains wy 2 of every 3 vehicles passing thru a busy intersection anywhere in the USA (and 90% of all our clothing and appliances) are engineered and manufactures by people in foreign countries who don't look like us, don't conform to our values, eat different foods and speak other languages. While the USAmerican Empire collapses under the weight of interest on borrowed money that can never be repaid. When employee's appearance becomes more important than their talents and productivity - we have no hope of competing successfully in the Global Economy. Personnel Managers rejoice! You are getting what your ignorance and narrow-mindedness deserves.

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