What should a company do if, after she is hired, an employee alters her physical presentation in such a way that the employer worries clients or customers might find it offensive? Is it misleading for an applicant to hide tattoos or piercings during a job interview, then reveal them on the job? What recourse does an employer have?
Body art is ubiquitous. According to a February 2016 survey from The Harris Poll, tattoos are especially prevalent among younger Americans, with nearly one-half of Millennials (47 percent) and over one-third of Generation X respondents (36 percent) saying they have at least one. People across diverse industries and regions boast colorful ink and nontraditional skin piercings.
As the popularity of tattoos and piercings has risen, has stigma in the workplace subsided?
That depends on the culture, image and values of the company.
For instance, Chase Bank's dress code states that "Appropriate dress and appearance increase the perception that Chase employees are professional, knowledgeable and capable of serving customer needs and maintaining responsible relationships." With the exception of having them for religious and certain health reasons, visible tattoos and piercings other than in the earlobes are not permitted.
When a corporate culture is built around its workers, however, there is more room for personal expression. In 2014, responding to demand from its young workforce, Starbucks began allowing employees to display their tattoos. Tattoos on the face and throat are still prohibited. Micha Solomon, a contributor to Forbes.com, suggested that the change had benefits for all parties. "Letting employees revel in their own style is a way to project how genuine you are as a brand to employees and to the customers they support," Solomon wrote.
SHRM Members Debate Body Art
In a recent discussion on the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) discussion forum—SHRM Connect—it became clear that HR professionals have different opinions on the subject.
One SHRM member wrote that the trend in body art will continue to influence corporate dress and appearance policies: "Many of our employees, including higher-ups (and myself) have tattoos and piercings," this member wrote. "Especially as you look to hire Millennials and the next generations, I think these policies [banning the display of body art] are going to quickly become outdated. We certainly removed them from our handbook."
Another HR professional wrote that "we also have customer-facing roles and do not allow visible tattoos, facial piercings or ear gauges. We are clear on this upfront, even if the person being interviewed does not show any. [A] manager needs to address this. And going forward, let your candidates know your expectations upfront."
Given that range of attitudes about tattoos and piercings in the workplace, job applicants may be uncertain about a company's position. Because many worry that their skills and abilities will be overlooked if body art is showing, they cover it up during the hiring process, some SHRM Connect commenters wrote.
Job search coach Ashley Robinson at Snagajob.com, an online job search engine based in Richmond, Va., recommends this. "Cover your tattoos as much as possible," she advises. "Wear clothing that will hide them or even use tattoo cover-up so they won't be visible. ... You want the interviewer to be focused on you and your qualifications, not your ink."
Once the job is secured, should the body art stay hidden?
To Reveal … Or Not?
In the SHRM Connect discussion, one HR professional noted that a newly hired desk greeter at a medical office covered her tattoos and removed her piercings during job interviews, then displayed them once she started working there. The SHRM member who manages the office felt duped. "She hid the fact that she had tattoos up both arms and that she wears a very large tongue ring and nose ring," this member wrote. "[The tattoos and piercings] were not made [apparent] to us in any of the interviews we had with her."
Patients complained about the woman's appearance, the member wrote, but HR was worried about the ramifications of asking the woman to cover her tattoos and remove her piercings while at work.
[Read More: Can Employers Ban Visible Tattoos and Piercings in the Workplace?]
Body modification can be considered an artistic, and in some cases religious, form of expression. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers with 15 or more employees "must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer." Many states offer similar anti-discriminatory protections to employees working for businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]
Brian Elzweig, assistant professor of business law at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and Donna K. Peeples, the university's retired associate professor of management, cautioned in an e-mail that "Employers should take special care to familiarize themselves with Title VII cases, take claims of religious and other forms of discrimination seriously, know the implications of their dress code, and make employees understand the repercussions of violating the dress code."
Another HR professional participating in the SHRM Connect discussion urged proactive communication: "We need to share the policies in order for candidates and employees to know the policies. … Considering the popularity of tattoos [and other body art], it would be wise to address this with candidates during the interview process, across the board, and especially with [those occupying] a visible role."
Some companies communicate dress and appearance policies as early as the job posting. "When you have very specific job requirements or expectations, weed out non-compliance before anyone's time is wasted," one person in the SHRM Connect discussion suggested.
Tracy Perez, a benefits manager in Denver, told SHRM Online that it's best for an employer to communicate clear expectations for dress and appearance in a formal, written policy signed by the employee. "This becomes the condition for employment," Perez said. "If you can't adhere to it, you can't work here."
Perez's 16-year-old son is seeking summer employment in the restaurant industry. His hair is dyed a verdant shade of green. Perez said she thinks her son's unnatural hair color won't hurt his chances for a dishwashing or other kitchen position that's out of customers' view.
"But if he interviewed with brown hair for a maître d' position and showed up to work with green hair, there would be problems."
Michele Poacelli is a freelance writer based in Mercersburg, Pa.
Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.