Body Art in the Workplace

by Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

Nearly 40 years after "flower power," body art has seen a resurgence. Men and women flaunt pierced navels at the beach, sterling silver glinting in the sun. Tattoo parlors have popped up in suburban areas in response to the demands of the younger generations, while some Baby Boomers are reviving their flirtations with their inky past.

This form of self-expression, once strictly reserved for bikers, sailors, and other unsavory types, has found its way into the boardrooms and backrooms of companies all over the world. Although the corporate world is loosening up, not all Wall Street investment firms and family-friendly malls are ready for studded and inked employees.

"Generally, I think body art is viewed as a negative thing in the professional world," said Cathy Cluff, director of operations, advertising, and marketing at the Oaks at Ojai and The Palms at Palm Springs, two California-based health and beauty spas. It may be a harsh reality to accept, but fashion statements can cross the line of personal expression into potentially career-damaging ideograms.

Consistency, respect for diversity are keys to a successful policy
Companies can limit employees' personal expression on the job as long as they do not impinge on their civil liberties. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not discriminate or hinder a person's race, color, religion, age, national origin, or gender.

Who's the boss? 
42 percent of managers said their opinion of someone would be lowered by that person's visible body art

44 percent of managers said they had tattoos or body piercings in places other than the ears

81 percent of respondents think piercings in places other than the ears are unprofessional

76 percent of respondents believe visible tattoos are unprofessional

Sources: Careerbuilder and
Although much body art is decorative, fashion is not its exclusive purpose. In the Maori culture of Polynesia, for example, it is customary to apply tattoos to areas of the body including the face in a spiritual practice known as Ta Moko.

Human resource experts will recommend that a company's dress code not only adhere to the government regulations, but also be based on legitimate business reasons, and be applied consistently. "This type of issue speaks to things like gender, race, setting and enforcing policy, and standing by that policy as well," said Mallary Tytel, president and CEO of ETP, Inc., a Connecticut-based nonprofit health and human resources development corporation.

Consistent application of a policy is an issue behind a recent lawsuit that arose after Ameritech Corp. asked three of its telephone line technicians to lose the jewelry, or lose the job. The company claimed that facial jewelry could be a potential safety hazard. The employees fought the "safety-based" policy and were subsequently suspended without pay. The workers filed grievances with their union and are taking part in an in-house investigation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a government agency designed to protect workers on the job, said people working near electric lines, including telephone workers, should refrain from wearing all types of jewelry. Unfortunately, Ameritech's current policy only attacks non-traditional facial piercings, and not ear piercings or other jewelry. The suspended linemen have stated that they would return to work if the policy applied to all jewelry and to all employees, a change that would follow the OSHA rules to the letter.

Enthusiasts sometimes argue that piercings and tattoos are inherently spiritual. "Body art is a form of sacred self-expression," said Rose Pulda, proprietor and senior body piercer of Miraculous Creations in Worcester, Mass., a body art emporium. "There are as many reasons for getting [piercings] as there are people getting them. But it's personal, it's a deep soul kind of thing."

Tytel agreed that body art with religious and spiritual connotations falls into a different category. "If you require business attire, the key is to create a dress code including a body art policy," she said. "This of course does not speak to tattoos, piercings, or body art that have religious, ethnic, or cultural meanings."

Body art policy can be tied to corporate dress code
While managers offer varied advice on how to create a solid dress code, most recognize that policies can differ across industries and corporate cultures. "There are extremes," said Duncan Browne, senior vice president of Newbury Comics, a Boston, Mass.-based chain of music and comic retailers. "I don't think many employees of banks display body art, but at a place like Newbury Comics, let your freak flag fly!"

Tytel agreed that policies are just as unique as the body art they regulate. "It depends on the company's mission, goals, and desired outcomes, in terms of identifying what's in the best interest of the corporation," she said. "You may want to tie your policy to a general dress code policy - that way it provides a context."

Companies should have a policy in place before conflict arises. "In our employee manual, we have a section about employee personal appearance where it says 'no excessive piercing and tattooing,'" said Browne. "We wanted to make sure we have the option based on management discretion, that if somebody is found to be excessive, we can do something about it." Even though body art is prevalent among Newbury Comics employees, the company has yet to dismiss an employee due to the policy.

They used to say, "Get a haircut, son"
As body art becomes easier and safer to apply, the percentage of employees reporting to work with body art increases. However, most corporations do not have a policy in place, since it's only recently that tattooing and piercing have become more mainstream. "Companies need to look at how they are going to address this issue in the future," said Tytel.

The situation also addresses the generation gap between Baby Boomer management and junior Gen X-ers, ironically recalling the cultural divide in the late 1960s and early 1970s over facial hair and skirt lengths. "As we start recruiting more high school and college graduates, we have to start looking at different issues than when we entered the workforce," said Tytel.

Can freedom of expression be good for business?
The justification for many corporate policies about appearance is the impact on customers and other business associates. "Hiring a person is ultimately about qualifications, but the employer does have rights," said Tytel. If clients have a problem with certain modes of dress or ornamentation, the human resources department may have to take that into account when interviewing prospective candidates. "The main thing is that if it makes one of our guests uncomfortable, then we have to implement a policy to prevent that from happening," said Cluff. "It's just like anything else - if a person isn't willing to wear the uniform assigned to them, they would not take the job, or they would receive a notice."

But a similar rationale has justified many discriminatory practices in the past - including not hiring women for executive positions because of the impression it might make in certain international settings; conducting business at exclusive country clubs because it's what clients expect; and prohibiting hairstyles that are prevalent among an ethnic minority that is not well represented in the company in the first place. The most progressive companies keep an eye on how the general culture changes, and revise their policies and practices to keep pace.

Moreover, taking a candidate out of the running because of body art isn't always practical. "You'd obviously want to talk about the issue, reach some compromises," said Tytel. "Can the person do the job? If they are sitting in a computer lab, not dealing with clients, perhaps it doesn't matter what they are wearing."

Tytel cautions HR professionals to separate their personal views from their company's. Also, she recommends that companies work with their clients to educate them about religious or cultural forms of expression if necessary.

And you never know: some clients may respond favorably to a pro-piercing policy. Pulda, who sports many noticeable tattooes and piercings, said, "I won't shop at a store that I know doesn't allow them - and they're missing out, because I love to spend money."

Resources and related reading
Letitia Baldridge - Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette
Clinton T. Greenleaf III - Attention to Detail: A Gentleman's Guide to Professional Appearance and Conduct
Judith Martin - Miss Manners Guide for the Turn of the Millennium
Peggy Post - Emily Post's Etiquette
Peggy Post and Peter Post - The Etiquette Advantage in Business