Tattoo taboo: Can you ask workers to cover up?

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Ottawa Hospital made headlines a year ago when it changed their dress code to require all “large” tattoos to be covered – even for staff who don’t work with patients. In the same year Ottawa police successfully fought similar changes to their uniform code.

A recent survey showed more than a third of employers thought tattoos would “affect their hiring decisions,” but for 20 per cent of Canadians a tattoo is part of their skin – and that number will grow as surveys show almost a third of those aged 18 to 29 have tattoos. So is it still acceptable to tell staff to cover them up?

In general, the Human Rights Commission has found dress codes and appearance standards are at the discretion of the employer.

“In the case of tattoos and most body piercing, the employer has the right to ask that they be covered and has the right to exercise the rule of discipline when employees do not comply.”

The exception is if it infringes on protected rights, such as a religious belief requiring a tattoo or piercing.

Seems simple? Think again. In the last few years court cases in Ontario and Quebec have challenged the right of employers to require tattoos covered at work.

Last year an Ontario arbitrator declared tattoos were not just for “sailors, stevedores and strippers” any more, when he found that the Ottawa Hospital’s strict dress code requiring workers cover tattoos and remove piercings was too restrictive.

Employees were required to cover large, visible tattoos and remove any piercings that were not “minimal and conservative”. Shorts, jeans and shorter skirts were all also banned. The hospital claimed studies showed patients were less comfortable with tattooed and pierced medical workers, and linked the negative impression to stress and health outcomes. However, arbitrator Lorne Slotnicvk found no evidence of the link.

CUPE claimed the code was enforced was part of a “class system” where doctors were essentially able to dress however they liked, whereas other staff had to meet a specific corporate image.

On Page Two: How you can develop a tattoo policy

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  • M_Web on 2013-08-13 8:08:33 AM

    When I worked for a municipality where there was a large (and vocal) senior community) we had a vacancy for the Public Greeter position (the person you first see when you enter City Hall to direct you to the right place). One of the applicants had a tattoo across her chest from sternum to throat, arm to arm the words "I HATE YOU." She wore a sundress to the interview which is how we knew that she had the tattoo. She was qualified, friendly etc., but there were 2 other applicants equally able so it came down to who won’t get the job. She didn't because of that tattoo.

  • L_Web on 2013-08-14 5:17:53 AM

    I totally agree about the content of the tattoo, if it's offensive, racist, discriminatory, it should be covered. We have a female staff member who has a lovely calla lily up the back of her neck to her hairline and it's beautiful. She also has a couple tiny ones at the ankle and the top of her foot. These are not offensive.....I wouldn't get a tattoo, but its a generational thing; both of my sons have the initials of their sons on their arm.

  • Ann on 2014-05-14 11:51:48 AM

    I work in a professional white collar workplace and visible tattoos are simply not considered appropriate -- even the ones that are generally acknowledged to be attractive.
    Yes, it is partially a class thing. But the human rights code does not protect against class discrimination (unless it is a form of race, gender, etc. discrimination).

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