Discrimination Against Tattoos in the Workplace

by Monica Stevens

    In some work environments, it is not advisable for employees to wear sleeveless shirts -- let alone reveal a sleeve of tattoos. Still, a 2012 study the polling organization, Harris Interactive, notes that one out of five adults in the United States sports at least one tattoo. As tattoos proliferate, some employers are becoming more accepting of body ink peeking through workplace attire, but that level of acceptance varies depending on the industry and the corporate culture.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so it is with opinions on tattoos at work. A June 2012 survey by Captivate, a digital media firm, found that various age groups have diverging views on acceptable workplace appearance. Participants over the age of 50 were far more likely to find tattoos distracting than those in the 35-49 age range. A study released in 2010 by the Pew Research Center notes that 70 percent of those between 18- and 29-years of age who have tattoos, decided to conceal their body ink under clothing.

    In some creative or cutting-edge fields, tattoos and other forms of self-expression are embraced, according to executive career coach Meredith Haberfeld in an interview with American Public Media’s “Marketplace.” Specifically, he cited design, music, fashion and sports as prominent examples. Even so, human resources managers surveyed in 2011 by CareerBuilder.com still named tattoos as the third most common physical characteristic that could hold an employee back from being promoted. Also, some 40 percent of people who undergo tattoo removal say employment was their motivation, according to a survey by The Patient’s Guide, an online resource for cosmetic and skin care related issues.

    In conservative office environments, tattoos are a big no-no, according to Kat Griffin, founder of Corporette, a website dedicated to corporate-friendly fashion guidance. While getting to know supervisors, coworkers and clients, new employees may discover there is some leeway regarding visible tattoos -- but first impressions often last. Griffin advises covering any visible ink until strong working relationships develop. Only then can employees be reasonably certain that body art won’t be deemed inappropriate. If there is uncertainty, err on the side of caution and cover up tattoos with clothing or concealing makeup, she recommends.

    Crafting a dress code that prohibits tattoos is a delicate balance for employers, according to a report by Joanne Deschenaux, senior legal editor for the Society for Human Resource Management. Employers may inadvertently exclude qualified employees through an overly broad tattoo ban. Almost across the board, employers have the legal right to discriminate against tattooed employees and create policies related to workplace dress, unless they conflict with religious accommodations, notes Houston-based attorney David Barron in the report. When deciding on a tattoo policy, employers should be specific and enforce it consistently, according to SHRM, and policies should also fit the company culture. Deschenaux’s report, for example, notes that companies may choose to distinguish between small tattoos that are barely visible and those that are large, difficult to hide, or potentially offensive.

    About the Author

    Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.

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