Losing Talented Applicants—Because You Can’t Get Past the Nose Ring

As facial piercings become more common, are employers prepared to relax standards?

By Dana Wilkie Apr 15, 2015
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For some hiring managers, it can be difficult to focus on an applicant’s resume when the candidate sitting across the table sports a silver nose ring and a diamond stud in the left eyebrow. 

In fact, those facial piercings may convince an interviewer that an applicant is rebellious, shifty, less than professional—and therefore not suited to the job.

Studies show that body piercings are often associated with negative stereotypes, but when it comes to recruiters and HR professionals, “piercing bias” may prevent the hiring of talented people and could even get a company in legal trouble. 

“Companies generally have discretion to have rules and policies [about piercings] that are justified by legitimate and nondiscriminatory business needs,” said Tamara Devitt, a partner in the Silicon Valley offices of Haynes and Boone. “The key of course is nondiscriminatory. We see the issue of piercings come up from time to time in religious discrimination and accommodation cases.” 

Body modifications such as piercings are becoming more commonplace, especially among younger people. A study published in 2007 by the Institute of Education Sciences found that 70 percent of female and 28 percent of male college students had piercings. 

But even if piercings seem more ubiquitous, that doesn’t mean all employers like them. A 2014 study by researchers from Iowa State University in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that applicants with facial piercings were determined to be less suitable for a job compared to applicants without facial piercings. The reasons were that applicants with facial piercings were believed to be less conscientious, less competent, less attractive, less sociable, less trustworthy, and to be of more questionable character than those without piercings. 

Religious Accommodations

An employer can establish a dress code prohibiting body piercings that are not consistent with the organization’s branding, image, values or mission, according to November 2012 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) guidance. 

But employers with policies prohibiting employees from having piercings may have to make exceptions when those piercings are for religious reasons. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 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 also have religious discrimination laws. 

Several Eastern-based religions’ practices involve body piercing, especially on the nose and ears. An employer must determine if a request to keep a piercing is based on a sincerely held religious belief and, if so, whether to allow an exception, according to July 2014 SHRM guidance on “Managing Employee Dress and Appearance.” 

“The question becomes whether accommodating the employee would pose an undue hardship or whether there is some other form of compromise, like wearing a Band-Aid or covering the piercing,” said David Barron, an attorney with Cozen O’Connor in Houston. “Because these situations can be very subjective, it is important for employers to be as consistent as possible in dress code enforcement to avoid claims of favoritism or discrimination.”

Perhaps the best-known case of piercing discrimination, Barron said, involved a member of the Church of Body Modification who was fired after refusing to remove an eyebrow ring while working at a Costco store. In a lawsuit, the employee claimed that Costco failed to accommodate her religious belief. Ultimately, the court ruled that the firing was justified because the eyebrow ring influenced the retailer’s public image. However, the court did find that the piercing was part of the employee’s religious beliefs.

The Industry Matters

Bans on—and bias against—facial piercings depends in large part on the industry, said Devitt, with bias especially prevalent in the financial services and legal professions. Many food processing and food preparation jobs ban piercings to avoid piercings falling into food. Certain medical professions have hygiene regulations that prohibit piercings. And it could be dangerous to wear dangling jewelry in any piercing when working around moving machinery. 

“In white-collar industries, most companies still have policies against facial piercings beyond the standard earrings for women,” Barron said. “In blue-collar industries, I have seen many clients relax standards to only a limitation on ‘extreme piercings’ or only limits for positions which have client interaction.”

There are also generational differences, he said, with younger managers being more open to piercings and sometimes having a different idea than older managers about what’s “extreme” or unacceptable.

In general, HR professionals should be cautious about stigmatizing job applicants or employees with piercings, Barron said. They should be careful to evaluate candidates based on job qualifications. And they should not make assumptions about the character of a person because of piercings, but should instead use multiple assessment approaches—including personality tests and asking questions based on behavioral scenarios. 

“It might be worth overlooking a questionable piercing if you can gain a good worker,” Barron said. “As the culture changes, the concern over customer reaction to an employee with a piercing also wanes, which makes it easier to relax standards.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. 

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