We make hundreds of judgments about people every day, many of them
based on personal
preferences. Personal prejudices don’t stop
at the office door either. This poses a particularly compromising
situation for employers. Since the whole interview process is
essentially one big judgment session, why would you think a manager
would just look away from body art (aka
tattoos) and body piercings.
Today’s hiring managers tend to be from a generation when tattoos
were limited to Marines, bikers, and gypsies. When these managers
interviewed for their first jobs, even facial hair for men and open-toe
shoes for women were a no-no. Today, facial hair is commonplace and hair
length runs from the shaven head to a neatly tied pony-tail. Female
candidates arrive to the interview with cleavage exposed and “dressy”
flip-flops. If you take a look around most workplaces today, employers
have either given up trying to regulate dress code or just don’t care.
But that still doesn’t stop candidates from getting under the skin of
hiring managers with almost any display of tattoos and piercings.
That’s a problem because forty percent of adults ages 18 to 40 now have a
tattoo or non-earlobe piercing, according to the Pew Research
Center’s Gen Next Survey.
Young workers — even those going through business school and looking
to be corporate leaders one day — have ramped up both the number and
placement of this body art. Such markings started to become more
mainstream due to the tattooed punk movement of the 1980s. This has
created a firestorm of activity to create personal appearance policies
that include rules about tattoos and piercings. But as many employers
will tell you, it’s not that easy without discriminating against certain
classes of workers and without significantly reducing the size of the
In fact, despite all the talk by HR and management about the
unprofessional appearance of candidates, just 36 percent of
organizations surveyed by the Society
for Human Resource Management of Alexandria, Va. had
a policy for body piercing; and only 22 percent had policies for body
art. That compares to 97 percent of organizations that maintained
policies on clothing and 70 percent on footwear.
Candidates and employees often feel the employer has no right to
restrict the display of piercings and tattoos. That’s not true.
Companies can limit employees’ personal expression on the job as long as
they don’t infringe on their civil liberties. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as
long as they don’t discriminate against a person’s race, color,
religion, age, national origin or gender. Companies faced with inked and
pierced applicants can demand eyebrow rings or tongue rings be removed
and tattoos covered to help project the proper image to customers. That
is because some customers, particularly older ones who dislike tattoos,
could be turned off and they may be less likely to do business with it.
Loss of business is a justifiable reason to restrict the display of body
art in whatever form it takes.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to enforce. For instance, let’s say
you deem it okay for a female employee to have a maximum of two visible
piercings, limited to the ear. But you forbid male employees from
wearing even one earring. Does this open up the employer to gender
discrimination? What if the nose piercing is a religious tradition?
Does this exempt the employee from the policy?
Employers will be expected to prove that any policy is job-relevant
and just driven by personal preference or bias. Those who disapprove of
inked-up and pierced workers must learn to accept those who are willing
to follow company guidelines and request that these employees cover up
their tattoos and jewelry — or face a shrinking
pool of applicants too.
Like facial hair and long hair for men and open-toe shoes and
mandatory skirts and stockings for women, tattoos and piercing policies
will eventually become relics. I expect there will be a sea change in
attitudes toward tattoos in the next 25 years as tattooed and pierced
peers begin running more companies. But what goes around comes around.
I wonder how the next generation of workers will test their bosses
regarding what’s acceptable attire in the office. Then again, the
concept of “going to work”
is already becoming a thing of the past.