Grounds for Dismissal and Discrimination?
I received an email that reminded me of Jason Marketti's recent post, "Tattoos, Piercings and Style." I agreed with the general feeling of his post and the comments: You can express individuality any way you please on your own time, but on company time you may only be an individual to the extent it doesn't interfere with client care.
Pink hair doesn't bother me. I don't have a tattoo, but have seen some that I think are beautiful and tastefully done. I have to admit, I'm intrigued by them. But I was taken aback by the "individual expressions" I saw in this email. In a business environment, these folks would distract me. If you read my April 2010 post, "Of Course I'm Looking at You," you'll see that I would find them off-putting whether they were an employee or a client.
So, I began to consider that 85-year-old grandma who won't interact with someone who has a tattooed forearm or modestly pierced tongue. Those expressions of individuality are the same to that 85-year-old woman as the faces in the email were to me. I was proud of myself for that breakthrough... until I talked to my sister.
As we talked, our conversation evolved from tattoos and piercings to physical deformities. She has a friend who lost an eye traumatically. The resulting area is visually disconcerting and takes some getting used to. Most of the time he wears a patch; but occasionally, the patch will break or he'll just need to keep it off. Her point was that his employer couldn't send him home from work because his patch broke and people had to look at his scar.
Then she brought up an amputee. Due to complications, the closure area cannot presently be covered and is unsightly. If the complications don't prevent her from doing her job, can an employer make her stay home from work because of what clients would think? Is it reasonable for the employer to demand this employee use her leave time until she can satisfactorily cover up her physical deformity?
Let's take it a step further. There is an employee who has 15 years of service. His home catches on fire. While rescuing his children, he sustains third- and fourth-degree burns. He undergoes rehab and is able to return to his job. His physical abilities are not affected, but his face is severely scarred. Even though he can competently perform all of the duties of his position, clients request to be served by another employee. Anything the man could use to cover up his face would be just as distracting as the scars. What should that employer do?
The bottom line is these traumatic examples have the same end result as "body art" - they are all physical disfigurement. As we talked, I realized the issue in "individual expression" really isn't about someone's appearance. I have a very different opinion about physical disfigurement depending on whether they have chosen it or it has been foisted upon them. I have seen physical deformities more off-putting than tattoos and piercings, but I would have a hard time justifying the denial of a job to someone with a physical deformity based solely on his appearance.
So, when I tell people they have to be individuals on their own time, am I really talking about their appearance, or the fact that I don't value/agree with their choices? Is it fair to discriminate against a disfigurement that is chosen but accommodate an equally distracting disfigurement that was not chosen?
One last nugget from my observant sister, pertaining to the email containing faces that were altered by choice: many forms of body art that I consider outrageous and that many in our society have difficulty embracing (myself included) are considered status symbols in other cultures.