Tattoed business man carrying laptop

Controversy over workplace tattoos gets nasty

Elizabeth Bromstein|

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 They also say the policy is “outdated and prejudiced.”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.

Category: Human Resources, Management,
  • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

    What was on the tattoos in question? I’ve seen some rather tastefully done works of art on one friend, and during a sit-down at a Tim Horton’s, saw a simplistic tattoo the employed the use of the F-sharp in a sentence.

    I suppose it all depends…


  • Jo Ann

    I am sorry but I agree with the employer. Employers rights seem to count for nothing these days. Employers if they state up front that they have a dress code and tattoos are allowed only if they can be covered up should be able to enforce the dress code. The employee has a choice whether to work there or not, no one is forcing them to work with an employer that does not share their opinion (a tattoo is a self opinion).

    • nick

      “Employers rights seem to count for nothing these days” – LOL – Employers have everything their own way these days, if they had any more power over their employees they would own them.

  • Lynda Foster

    I have several tattoos, some visible. As do other people in our company – both men and women. I work in a professional office setting. but rarely have actual visual contact with clients/vendors. I respect my boss and if he asked me to cover them, I would. My tattoos are for me to enjoy, but they do not trump my career and livelihood. We currently do not have an actual policy on the subject, but things change over time. I think it would be nearly impossible for employers to implement a policy that could cover every foreseeable personal style choice. If the company has an established no visible tattoos policy in place when you are hired, either respect it or find another job. Obviously they have put some business thought into this. If they don’t but you have tattoos, ask them how they feel about it. Just be open and honest with each other. Mutual respect goes a long way.

  • Lance LeFort

    As long as the images or writing isn’t profane or offensive employees should be allowed to show their ink. You might actually have some tattoo’d clients or members of the public that are happy to be addressed by an employee WITH tattoos. Why are we assuming the public is afraid or uncomfortable with tattoos. This sounds like outdated thinking. Tattoos are much more popular with the current generation and some people find them VERY interesting and appealing. They can also be an ice-breaker, just like dogs and kids. “where did you get that one done?” Some tattoos are awesome works or art and should be enjoyed.

  • josephjohnny


  • Mark Spicer

    I have a large number of tattoos, including a full sleeve on my left arm. I receive compliments on it from a large number of people, including one today, from a lady who was easily in her 80′s. She said it is “absolutely beautiful”. Tattoos do not make somebody a criminal, or unsavory. They are a form of personal expression, and a genuine art form. Every one of my tattoos is professionally done, and at least 7 are visible when I wear a short-sleeved shirt. I would cover what is possible to cover if required, but it should not be required. The times, they are a changin’… employers need to get in step with the modern age…

  • nick

    Tattoos in the workplace, in full view, whatever next – women in trousers, it’s the end of the world as we know it.

  • dave jenson

    I saw a cop at Mississauga city hall walking around in short sleeves with several tattoos on his arm and must say it looked nasty, but who am I to complain, I’m just a taxpayer who wants my police force to look professional and not like a street thug. Silly me.

  • it’s just me

    If i paid for something that going to be on my body for ever who are you to tell me I can’t where what I want to wear it’s my body and my life as long as it doesn’t offend anyone it should be alright it’s not like its gang related or non thing it’s just me being an individual and expressing my freedom.