Retail giant Claire's said it will change its policies around piercing children's ears after a former employee called the existing practice "cruel" in an open letter that went viral on Facebook over the weekend.
Raylene Marks, 32, took a job at an Edmonton location of Claire's just before Christmas. It was a standard retail job, she said: she sold accessories and organized merchandise and pierced kids' ears. She generally liked working there — until last week.
Because it's often minors getting their ears pierced, consent lies with their parents. Marks said she took issue with that when a woman brought in her seven-year-old daughter, who stated very clearly and articulately that she didn't want to get her ears pierced.
Some kids are excited but also a little scared of the pain they might experience, but this was something different, Marks said.
"Sometimes it does take 15 minutes to try to explain the procedure to a child, to get them to pick their earrings, and to calm them down," she told HuffPost Canada.
But if a child is resisting for more than 15 minutes, that's "kind of a personal limit for me," she added.
"It was a 30-minute ordeal of crying, of refusals, of saying, 'Mommy I don't want these people to touch me, Mommy they're standing too close, I don't want their hands on my ears, I don't want the gun on my ears.'
"That child's message was loud and clear to me: Do not touch my body, do not pierce my ears, I do not want to be here," Marks wrote in her open letter.
"I'm inclined to respect a child's right to say, "NO," to any adult forcing any kind of non-medical contact on them."
So she took her assistant manager aside and told her quietly that she didn't think they should go through with the piercing.
The store policy is that once a piercing is underway, the parent is on the hook to pay for the package, which includes the procedure and the earrings. Marks said she offered to pay the fee herself just so she wouldn't have to keep going.
She doesn't remember exactly how much this particular package cost — she knows it was one of the models from the gold selection, which runs somewhere between $67 and $132.
The mother eventually relented and she and her daughter left the store, ears intact, without having to pay the bill. Marks told HuffPost Canada her assistant manager told her she wouldn't actually have to pay the fee herself, and Marks wondered if the next day, her manager would admonish her for not asking for a full payment.
But that's not what got her in trouble. Her manager told her that as an employee, she would have to go through with the piercing if it's what the parent requested, regardless of a child's resistance.
"We operate on parental consent," she remembers her manager saying. "You don't interfere with the parent's call."
When Marks asked her about the worst case scenario — what if a parent physically restrained a child who was screaming and crying and begging her not to perform a piercing? — her boss told her that yes, she would have to perform the procedure.
"I was very shocked," Marks said. "I did not expect this from my manager."
WATCH: What's the right age to pierce a kid's ears? Story continues below.
Marks didn't quite know what to say. "We were unwrapping some products, so I could pretend to be busy with something," she said. Finally, she asked her if she wanted her resignation in writing.
"I'm not going to override a child's right to protect themselves," she explained to HuffPost Canada.
In her letter, she outlines her discomfort with the fact that in the store where she used to work, "children can be held down and pierced. Children do not have a voice in the piercing process. The associate doing the piercing has no right to refuse to shoot metal through the ears of a child who begs not to be touched."
She initially gave two weeks notice, but her manager later told her she could leave right away if she wanted to. "I don't know if she was being mindful of my feelings, or worried that I would be a problem employee," Marks said.
Marks contacted several child welfare agencies and employment organizations, and while all of them were sympathetic, she says they all told her the matter was outside of their purview. Finally, in frustration, she took to Facebook late on Saturday night.
"I thought I'd be impressed to see 15 shares," she said. But a few days later, her letter had been shared 1,600 times and viewed by close to 7,000 people.
Claire's has come out in support of Marks.
"We believe she acted appropriately and in line with our policy by refusing to do the piercing," the company said in an emailed statement to HuffPost Canada.
"The policy is in place to ensure that if a child is distressed or resisting, Claire's employees have the right to refuse to continue the piercing. We are investigating the specific store instances she mentions, and will take appropriate corrective action."
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Claire's told Marks over Facebook that they planned to "review" and "update the wording" of the policy, she said.
On Tuesday, a Claire's spokesperson told HuffPost Canada they'll be changing the policy "this week." The updates will cede to a child's will if the child "is distressed or resisting," the company said. Marks told them she hoped a child simply saying "no" would be considered resistance, and Claire's said it will honour that request.
Marks said she appreciates the response, but is waiting to see the change before she starts celebrating.
"It's not a terrible retail job, but the policy is weak and it allows really horrible things to happen," she said. "I will be relieved and astounded if Claire's releases a statement that shows proof of a policy being revised to respect a child's right to say no, and to protect the employee who respects that child's right to say no."
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