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Piercings ban unjustified absent proof of business harm

January 28th, 2016  |  David Stephanides

Noting that during the 21st century, body piercings, tattoos, and long beards have come into vogue and become commonplace, and arbitrator recently sustained a grievance filed by a union member seeking to quash her employer’s written disciplinary warnings issued for her failure to remove facial piercings (Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1070 and Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., Nov. 18, 2015, Daniel Zeiser, Arbitrator).

In 2009, prior to being hired as a bus driver in 2013, the grievant elected to receive three micro dermal piercings in her cheek. The process involved the insertion of an anchor through a hole in the cheek created by a thin needle. The anchor included a flat base and an arm that extended through the skin, into which could be inserted a jewel or a stone. She chose to undergo this permanent process because it reminded her of something her mother wore when she was young. Her cheek, however, rejected one of the piercings, leaving two implants and a scar where the third implant failed.

The bus company that hired her had a Dress and Personal Appearance Policy that applied to employees with regular public contact, to project a professional image to riders and to the general public. The company updated its policy in 2014, which included an accessories section that limited the size of earrings that could be worn and limited earrings to one per ear, but it said nothing about face piercings. In September of 2014, however, the employer issued a notice about winter uniforms that included a ban on all facial piercings. Following the issuance of the September ban on facial piercings, the employer ordered the employee to remove her piercings. When she failed to do so, the employer issued a written warning. She failed to remove the facial implants because they could not easily be removed like other piercings, requiring instead plastic surgery at great expense. She then filed a grievance contesting the employer’s decision.

An employer is permitted to adopt rules of personal appearance as long as the rules have a reasonable relationship to (1) the employer’s image or (2) health and safety considerations. Furthermore, employers are not permitted to regulate an employee’s personal appearance away from work, unless harm is caused to the employer’s business by that appearance.

In this case, the employer had the right to institute the dress policy. The arbitrator determined, however, that the ban on facial piercings was unreasonable because the employer could not prove any harm to its business. The employer, for example, never surveyed customers about their attitudes to the piercings, never learned whether other transit systems disciplined employees for facial piercings, and never sought to find out if piercings had an impact on funding. The arbitrator noted that many riders themselves had piercings and that no complaints had been received. As a result, he sustained the grievance and ordered that the written warning be removed from her file.