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Ottawa Hospital can’t make employees cover tattoos

Posted by on Jan 29, 2013 in HR Issues, Moneyville | 0 comments


    January 28, 2013

There may not be a better known tattoo than the one worn by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Tyson started sporting the look at the end of his boxing career.There may not be a better known facial tattoo than the one worn by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Tyson started sporting the look at the end of his boxing career.BRIAN BOHANNON/AP

A labour arbitrator has struck down a dress code policy at the Ottawa Hospital that bans visible body piercings and requires employees to cover up large tattoos.

The decision was handed down earlier this month and came down to what a hospital union considered an infringement of civil rights and the hospital believed was about professionalism in the workplace.

The grievance was launched by Local 400 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees which represents  service, trades and clerical employees at the hospital with. None have patient contact. The dress code applies to them as well as doctors, nurses, volunteers and students.

The union argued that the dress code was an unreasonable infringement on employees’ rights to express themselves in their appearance. They said there had been no patient complaints and the policy could not be justified by any health or sanitation concerns. The union did accept that it had no issue with the hospital requiring the cover-up of a hateful, profane or otherwise offensive tattoo.

The hospital argued that in addition to the issue of professionalism, some patients are put off by health care providers sporting tattoos and piercings. The hospital’s lawyer said: “If the hospital can save any patient some anxiety by requiring employees to cover tattoos and remove piercings that is a small sacrifice for the employee.”

Related:When can your employeer tell you what to wear?

The arbitrator ruled in favour of the union noting that it was hard not to conclude that the hospital was trying to fix a problem that did not exist. The hospital did not show any past or potential harm to patients, employees or the hospital, so he declared the policy void and unenforceable.

The decision only applies to CUPE Local 400 employees, so in theory the hospital could continue to impose the policy on non-union workers like doctors and medical students, says Ben Piper, with the Ottawa office of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell who acted for the union. However, as a practical matter he thinks that is unlikely.

Related: How piercings and tattoos hurt your career

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