Written on behalf of Peter McSherry
A Toronto man has told the Toronto Star that he feels that his human rights were violated when, in response to his job application to UPS, the company informed him that his beard was contrary to their appearance policy and he would have to shave it off if he wanted to work for them.
Beards Prohibited by Company Policy
Alan Stokell, a 68-year old retired City of Toronto worker, applied for a seasonal job at UPS. The position was for a “walker”- a person who helps UPS drivers pick up and deliver packages.
In response to his application, UPS sent Stokell a questionnaire which inquired, among other things, whether he would accept the company’s “strict appearance guidelines” which required all employees to be “clean shaven” and hide visible piercings and tattoos.
Stokell responded and informed UPS that he had short hair and a short, well-groomed beard. A UPS employee re-iterated that unless an employee had a beard for religious or medical reasons, all employees had to be clean shaven as per the company’s appearance policy. Any employee who wanted accommodation for their beard had to provide proper documentation outlining specific religious or medical reasons that required them to have facial hair.
Stokell was upset and felt discriminated against, telling the Toronto Star that:
Although not as serious as some (violations), I don’t believe large multi-national corporations should be able to get away with this…I’ve had a beard since I was 18 and I identify as being a bearded person. It’s something I live by, I’m very proud of my beard and I’m not really interested in shaving it off.
The Human Rights Tribunal’s Position on Beards in the Workplace
This is not the first time that an employer’s policy on beards has come under scrutiny. In 2014, a nickel smelting worker filed a human rights complaint against Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations after the employer ordered him to shave his goatee.
In early 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled against the employee, stating that his goatee was not related to any religious beliefs, nor could it be considered an “expression of gender”. Basing his final conclusion on previous decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Manitoba Court of Appeal, and other arbitrators, Vice-Chair Mark Hart found that:
Wearing a beard or other facial hair is a matter of style or grooming, and is not a matter of sufficient social significance to warrant protection under human rights legislation … absent any connection to a matter of religious observance.
At the moment, this most recent decision is the precedent for how the Human Rights Tribunal will treat further beard-related human rights complaints, including one made by Stokell, if he chooses to file one.
In order for a complaint about an employee’s beard policy to be successful, an employee or prospective employee would have to link their facial hair to a ground that is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code: race, colour, ancestry, creed, place of origin, ethnic origin, citizenship, sex, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability, and record of offences.
Beard as a Creed?
Stokell has told the Toronto Star that he considers his beard to be a kind of a creed:
My son has a beard, my father and grandfather all had beards… It’s something you live by.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission provides guidelines on the Code. The Commission’s Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed, released in March 2016, states that creed may include non-religious belief systems that “substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life”.
Per the Policy, a creed:
- Is sincerely, freely and deeply held
- Is integrally linked to a person’s identity, self-definition and fulfilment
- Is a particular and comprehensive, overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices
- Addresses ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence
- Has some “nexus” or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief.
All of these characteristics are relevant when considering whether an individual’s belief system can be considered a “Creed” under the Code.
While Stokell has not officially been rejected as an applicant by UPS, he says he is no longer interested in working for the company. He also hopes that UPS will “soften its stance on beards” going forward.
If you have questions about your employer’s policies, discrimination at work, or your human rights in the workplace, contact Peter McSherry by phone at 519-821-5465 or by e-mail to schedule a consultation.