As piercings and body art become increasingly mainstream,
employers grapple with the issue of what can be on display and what they
can ask their employees to cover up.
Generally speaking, employers are allowed to institute dress
codes and grooming standards as long as they don’t contravene an
employee’s religious or cultural beliefs, like insisting a Sikh man trim
Tattoos or piercings are not protected by human-rights codes,
unless they are similarly significant in nature. However, that doesn’t
mean you can be discriminated against for them either.
“Tattoos are no longer confined to sailors, stevedores, and
strippers,” said arbitrator Lorne Slotnick in a 2013 decision
overturning The Ottawa Hospital’s proposed dress code that imposed
strict regulations on tattoos.
The controversial policy said large, visible tattoos must be
covered during shifts, but the union complained that the code
unjustifiably constrained employees’ ability to express themselves in
The arbitrator agreed, saying tattoos and piercings are now so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable.
“As sideburns were controversial in 1972, so tattoos and piercings are now,” he wrote.
Slotnick deemed the policy an “unreasonable infringement on
employees’ rights to express themselves in their appearance,” and added:
“while tattoos and piercings are not protected under human rights laws,
the evidence in this case was clear that many of the employees regard
those aspects of their appearance as an important part of their
In many such cases, labour arbitrators and even the Supreme
Court of Canada have used the “KVP test,” named for a 1964 dispute
gauging whether new rules introduced by an employer without union
consent are valid. The KVP test considers six points about such
- They must not be inconsistent with the collective agreement.
- They must not be unreasonable.
- They must be clear and unequivocal.
- They must be brought to the attention of the employee affected before the company can act on it.
- The employee concerned must have been notified that a
breach of the rule could result in his discharge (if the rule is used as
a basis for discharge).
- They have been consistently enforced since their introduction.
As with many legal questions, the “reasonableness” is the core
question in the KVP test, and many employer policies are struck down for
In a non-union workplace, the validity of any dress code or
body art policy would be weighed against the provincial or territorial
human rights code. Employees would have to prove such policies amount to
discrimination against their gender, race, religion, ancestry or other
In a 2009 ruling, a Quebec daycare’s ban on visible tattoos was
overturned as a judge found such a ban “rests on prejudices,” and that
tattooing can’t be associated with delinquency or other negative
However, that judge also noted there must be limits: an employer could
require inappropriate body art, depicting sexual activity or violence
for example, to be covered.
If you feel your body art has provoked discrimination in the workplace,
contact your union (if applicable) and consult your governing
human-rights code. Your art may not be protected by law, but you could
still have grounds to fight back.