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Ask HR: Can My Employer Penalize Me for Having Tattoos?

​Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

I work at a country club where we have a "no visible tattoos" policy. We are slated to change uniforms to short-sleeve shirts that will reveal my forearm tattoos. Can my employer punish me for not meeting the standard? —Janet

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Certainly, employers retain the right to establish and enforce dress code policies prohibiting visible tattoos as long as they are applied to all employees equally and allow reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs. Your company could indeed discipline you should you not meet the standard, and it may even consider termination. Before you get there, I recommend you establish a dialogue with your employer regarding your concerns with the policy.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the details of the tattoo and dress code policy. It should specify what is acceptable and what is not for tattoos. If there are any unclear elements, check with your HR representative or manager to clarify. Consequences are usually outlined within the policy, as well. Even if visible tattoos are not allowed, you may have viable options to get to compliance.

Your employer may make accommodations to obscure the tattoos with a bandage, scarf, jewelry or makeup. Of course, success with these is dependent on the size and location of the tattoos. As an alternative to wearing long sleeves, a lightweight cardigan, sweater or jacket to wear over the uniform shirt may also work. You could even consider wearing an elastic arm sleeve. Any of these options would be a good alternative to baring your arms and exposing your tattoos.

I'll add this: When negotiating issues with the potential for conflict, start discussions by gathering information and listening for perspective from the other party—in this case, your employer. Consider taking a break from the discussion as you digest the newly revealed information and its implications. When you are ready to circle back, proceed to lay out your concerns and perspective. Highlight your commitment to a solution that works for both parties. Be willing to explore options even if at first glance they seem unreasonable.

Once you are confident that you understand your company's policy and any feasible alternatives, bring your concerns to HR or your manager to discuss which course of action could work for both sides. Be open and honest about your tattoos, and ask how you can comply with the policies. I suspect you aren't the only employee with tattoos, so they will likely be prepared to provide a reasonable solution. I hope you find a resolution that works for you and your employer.

I injured my knee at work and applied for workers' compensation. My injury requires surgery. My manager is aware my claim is legitimate; however, my employer's insurance company has delayed authorizing treatment for the last eight months. Is there any way my employer can force the insurer to authorize the surgery? Adrian

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Workers' compensation cases are especially difficult to navigate when you are encountering obstacles to receiving treatment. Though your employer may be limited in its ability to force the insurer to act on the claim, it does have recourse to assist in the process. Remember, it is up to your employer's discretion as to how much it gets involved in your case.

To start, employers can request that the reason for the delay be sent in writing and can also follow up regularly on the claims process. On your end, you could consider legal action if treatment is delayed without a stated reason. Additionally, the insurer should assign you a case manager as a chief point of contact for your claim.

Keep in mind, the delay could stem from a host of reasons. Often, insurance companies base their decisions on information received from your employer and medical provider. Verify with your HR department and health care provider that all necessary information has been submitted to the insurer. Confirm with your assigned case manager that the pertinent information from all sources has been received. In cases such as yours where surgery is required, insurers may request a second opinion or ask you to use certain providers. You may want to check with your employer or case manager to see if a second opinion would be helpful in moving the approval process forward.

If your employer's appeals to the workers' compensation insurer do not yield a resolution, you may want to seek guidance from legal counsel. An experienced workers' compensation attorney is often valuable in navigating local guidelines regarding workers' compensation and ensuring you receive all of the treatments and compensation entitled to you. I wish you a speedy and full recovery.


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