Inked at Work

Tattoos are increasingly becoming common sights in American culture, but does the growing societal acceptance of body art end at the workplace door? While some religious considerations are involved, the issue revolves largely around -- and should be addressed via -- a company's dress-code requirements.

Monday, July 16, 2007
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Tattoos and other body art have been a documented part of human culture since at least the Paleolithic era, but only recently has the human resource function been involved in deciding what is appropriate to display on your skin at the workplace.

Recent studies have found that the art of body modification, through either tattooing or body piercing, has become more and more popular among young people.

A 2006 study by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University shows that nearly 50 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 32 have at least one tattoo or a piercing other than in an ear.

And a 2003 Harris Poll found that men and women both say their tattoos make them feel sexy and rebellious, while men and women who don't have tattoos say they see body art as unsightly and think those with tattoos and piercings are less intelligent and less attractive.

The alluring draw of tattoos, once the obvious mark of bikers, sailors and felons, has begun to capture demographic groups that, 10 years ago, would have blanched at the notion of being associated with a Hell's Angel.

David Barron, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Epstein, Becker, Green, Wickliff & Hall, P.C. in Houston, says this trend is not going away any time soon.

"Tattoos are clearly on the rise," he says, adding that even one of his wife's friends, a fellow soccer mom, received a $500 gift certificate for body art as a present last Christmas.

With the popularity rising and the increasing potential of applicants or workers with high-visibility body art, Barron says employers can save themselves a lot of needless headaches by enacting and distributing a well thought-out dress code.

"It really comes down to dress codes, where the rubber hits the road," he says. He says there's nothing wrong with limiting visible tattoos in the workplace, just as long as the limitations are enforced equally across all employee groups.

"You want to maintain professionalism for the company," he says, "but the other side of that are the questions of 'How consistent are you in doing that? Are there other things that are not consistent with company image [that are being allowed]?' "

Barron advises HR managers to "have a policy in writing and in practice that if there's an offensive tattoo, like a Confederate flag, for instance, then that has to be dealt with the same way an offensive picture, e-mail or poster would be dealt with. If it's offensive ... it should not be allowed in the company."

He also recommends that when a company is drafting its dress-code policy, it must be able to justify the policy to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission should a discrimination complaint be filed by either a prospective or current employee whose body art falls outside the limits of the dress code.

Barron says enforcing the dress code consistently is key.

"If [an employee] says: 'The African-American [employee] gets to display his tattoos but I don't get to display mine,' if you're not consistent [in enforcing your policies] then it's difficult to win those cases."

He also thinks that exceptions should be made only after great care has been given to the request.

"Be extraordinarily careful in making exceptions to the dress-code policy," he says. "Once you make an exception, it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle."

As the tattoo phenomenon leaves a deeper and deeper imprint on American culture, Barron looks forward to a time when having ink work done is no longer a point of contention.

"I think there's going to be increasing pressure from younger folks, as they move up into management," to change or relax body art regulations at work. "I've already seen the perception [of tattoos] change. Views have become more liberal," he says.

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The issue of tattoos and body piercings at the workplace is a direct result of the "tension between individual and institution" that is inherent in the American psyche, according to Janie Harden Fritz, associate professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "Tattoos are a nonverbal form of self-expression," she says.

But while rugged individualism is one of the cornerstones of the country's culture, so too is capitalism. "The bottom line matters," she says. "If customers are going to be put off by tattoos, then businesses have the right to say 'We don't want that here.' ... The key is making clear what the guidelines are at an institution."

The issue of tattoos extends beyond the dress-code debate and onto the holy ground of religious territory -- which can then sometimes involve costly litigation. And many times courts have found in favor of the employee, Barron says. "Religious discrimination is usually how tattoo cases get to court," he adds.

One recent case, he says, involved a Red Robin restaurant employee of Egyptian background who complained to the EEOC that he was being forced to cover up his wrist tattoos that corresponded with his religion, thereby infringing on his religious freedom. The EEOC took up the case, Barron says, and won.

When religion is not a factor, recruiting still is. For companies looking to hire and retain the young, creative employees of the future, they must remember that "the more restrictive you are [in terms of body art regulations], the more restrictive you will be on your potential workforce," Barron says.

But Fritz believes that companies who spend the necessary time working on their dress-code policies regarding tattoos will be the ones that also reap the greatest benefits.

"The companies that find that delicate balance [between regulation and free expression], those are the ones who are going to keep the best employees and also the best customers," she says.

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