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The continuing debate about tattoos in the workplace

The debate about visible tattoos in the workplace is ongoing.
The debate about visible tattoos in the workplace is ongoing.
Wikimedia Commons User Magnus Manske

People have gotten tattoos put on their bodies for a long time, but during the last 20 years, they have become a popular form of self-expression for millions of people. With such a degree of popularity, there is usually a point where self-expression collides with what are considered to be social norms. Nowhere are social norms more highly emphasized than in the workplace. Even in the most progressive workplaces a certain level of dress and deportment is expected.

With so many people having tattoos on various parts of their bodies, employers have found it necessary to implement rules about them in dress codes. Typically, the more customer contact there is involved in a person's job description, the stricter the rules about visible tattoos are. This is especially true in retail environments, banks, and health care.

Employers in industries where customer contact is essential are less likely to hire visibly tattooed workers. The reason for this is many employers feel that visible tattoos do not present a professional look. So even if a tattooed worker successfully hides their tattoos during the interview and does get hired, they need to be mindful to hide them until they are fully indoctrinated into the workplace culture and are aware of the rules governing tattoos.

Many employers go so far as saying that if a tattoo is on a part of the body that is visible, even if all other parts of the dress code are followed, the employee is still in violation of the rules. This can be especially hard for employees who have tattoos on the backs of their hands, on their face/neck areas and on forearms when short sleeves are worn. But the quandary of not following the code is that it can lead to disciplinary action and even termination.

Employers have to answer a vital question: how important is a tattoo rule at work? If a very strict rule is in place, employers may find it difficult to hire new employees because of the prevalence of tattoos among people today. An employer has to weigh the importance of having employees with no visible tattoos against the other qualities a worker brings to the table. Is an employer willing to sacrifice hiring a very talented worker simply because they have their son or daughter's name tattooed on the back of their hand? As tattoos continue to grow in popularity, employers may be forced to concede that having strict rules in place is detrimental to business.

Before ditching anti-tattoo language in dress codes all together, employers need to consider the acceptability and professionalism conveyed by a person's body art. An employee with a skull and crossbones tattooed on their forearm may cause more of a problem for customers than someone with a rose tattooed in the same area. Likewise, consideration should be given to what type of job the worker performs and when it is performed. For example, a tattoo rule may be more lenient in a factory setting as opposed to a bank, whereas a nighttime security guard may have a more lenient tattoo rule than a librarian who typically works during daytime hours.

The ultimate question becomes whether or not the employer is willing to define what is an acceptable, visible tattoo and what is not. If they go forward with such a plan, they can probably expect their decision to be questioned, if not to their faces, at least through the grapevine. The bottom line is employers are generally free to establish acceptable dress codes for their workplaces as long as there is nothing discriminatory about the policy. For example, employers should keep in mind that tattoos that represent a religious preference may need to be allowed. But as long as the dress code is not in violation of federal or state laws governing discrimination, employers are usually able to dictate what they consider to be acceptable workplace dress and staff are expected to meet those requirements.