Few people would argue that freedom of expression should be a fundamental right for everyone. What is less clear is exactly how far that freedom of expression extends, and when people are subject to the enforced policies of others. One area that has sat on the front lines of this particular issue for years now is that of tattoos in the workforce. Tattoo aficionados have long been pushing for the ability to proudly display their body art in the workplace, and that push often sees them coming up directly against their employers.
Employers taking a hard line
Many workplaces have policies governing what's acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to tattoos, but few have been as proactive and aggressive in their enforcement than the Ottawa Convention Centre. The Canadian venue recently made headlines when it brought the hammer down on three of its employees in regard to their tattoos. The company, which has a policy mandating tattoos be covered by long sleeves, sent a group of workers home for not properly covering up, citing a dress code infraction. When they returned the next day, the noncompliant employees discovered that they had been literally locked out of their jobs, with their access key cards having been reprogrammed to deny them access to the building where they worked.
In a similar vein, a woman in Edmonton created and circulated a petition intended to allow her to display her tattoos and facial piercings without fear of job-related consequences. The Huffington Post reported that the online petition has already gained several hundred signatures.
"You never know how good someone's going to be at the job, unless you look at their credentials instead of just looking at their face," Kendra Behringer told The Huffington Post, indicating her belief that her body modification has contributed to her losing jobs and being passed over for job opportunities in the past.
An instance of conflicting interests
One of the reasons the issue remains so prevalent in the trenches of the common workplace concerns is that it is couched in considerable gray area when it comes to rights of employees versus rights of their employers.
If you ask the inked employees, they'll tell you that the issue is one of their freedom of expression. One of the affected Ottawa employees likened the issue to other workplace discrimination practices, claiming that such stringent anti-tattoo policies constitute discrimination against body modification. Especially for those whose tattoos are not obscene, offensive or hateful, a universal blanket policy banning all visible tattoos can seem unnecessarily unfair, especially considering the fact that tattoos are, at least ostensibly, permanent, leaving them no recourse except tattoo removal.
However, many employers and others within the professional world take a different view of the situation. For them, it's not an issue of discrimination, but rather of a company's autonomy to create and enforce its own policies within reasonable measures. Their policies are viewed not as discriminatory, but rather as a foreseeable and acceptable consequence of the decision to get a tattoo in the first place.
"People make a conscious choice, they make a personal choice when they have a tattoo or a piercing. They know it is not something that is readily acceptable by everybody in the community," Hilary Predy, staffing professional with employment agency Adecco, told The Huffington Post.
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