The Employment Law Implications of the Whole Foods Poppy Ban

Written on behalf of Peter McSherry
A red poppy representing Whole Foods' ban on employees wearing poppy pins in Canada
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Canadians have been recognizing Remembrance Day, November 11th, by wearing a poppy pin for almost 100 years. In addition to acting as a symbol to recognize the sacrifices of Canada’s veterans, the campaign also raises money each year for the Royal Canadian Legion. The funds raised from the sale of poppy pins go towards providing food, shelter and other necessities for those who have retired from service. Given how entrenched the symbol is in Canadian culture, it came as a surprise to many when a major grocery chain made headlines last week for banning its Canadian employees from wearing the pin at work.

Possible Response to Mask Controversy in the U.S.

An employee of Whole Foods, an upscale food market based in the U.S. with 14 locations across Canada, had been wearing the pin at work when a supervisor told her she had to remove the pin, as it could be seen as “supporting a cause”. The supervisor said that if the store allowed the pin, it would open up the door for employees to display support for other causes. The company insisted the decision was part of its revamped uniform policy, which required an employee to wear only an apron or vest, a coat, a hat and a name badge over their clothing.

However, Whole Foods had made headlines in the U.S. earlier this year when several employees claimed they had faced disciplinary action for wearing face coverings which displayed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Several people claimed they had been sent home without pay or faced other punishments for wearing the masks. While the chain claimed that its dress code had long banned any clothing displaying “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising”, employees claimed otherwise. They alleged that other employees had been permitted to wear masks with political messages and sports team logos without issue. Given the ongoing lawsuits regarding the issue in the U.S., it seems possible that the company may have revamped its position on the uniform, and the poppy was caught up in that effort, being viewed as signifying a certain political stance.

Do Ontario Human Rights Code Protections Apply?

Do Ontario employees have rights under the Human Rights Code (the “Code”) when it comes to displaying an item such as the poppy pin? The short answer is no. The Code protects employees from discrimination based on 17 attributes, including:

  • age
  • gender identity & expression
  • race
  • citizenship
  • race
  • creed
  • marital status
  • sexual orientation

“Political belief” is not a protected ground under the Code, and therefore, if the poppy was determined to represent a political belief, the Code would not necessarily prevent an employer from banning it. While the decision might not contravene the law, the public reaction clearly demonstrates that the public relations aspect of the decision was not beneficial to the company.

Canadian Politicians Weigh in on the Decision

Politicians at all levels commented on Whole Foods’ decision to ban the poppy. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford had this to say:

I find it absolutely disgraceful. I find it disgusting…So we’re going to introduce legislation immediately that permits any employee, any employee no matter where you work … to wear a poppy, and making sure that no employer can force someone not to wear a poppy.

Federal Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay issued a statement on Twitter, saying that the decision to ban the poppy was unacceptable, and this sentiment was echoed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Soon after, Whole Foods issued a statement reversing the ban:

Our intention was never to single out the poppy or to suggest a lack of support for Remembrance Day and the heroes who have bravely served their country. Given the learnings of today, we are welcoming team members to wear the poppy pin.

The company also confirmed it would be donating to the Royal Canadian Legion’s poppy campaign and would be observing a previously-planned moment of silence on November 11th at all of its locations.

Contact the offices of Guelph employment lawyer Peter McSherry for up-to-date advice on a variety of employment issues, including human rights remedies for workplace discrimination. We can guide you through the issues, help you understand your rights, and defend your position. Contact us online or by phone at 519-821-5465 to schedule a consultation.