(The following excerpt from Love Your Work, Hate Your Tattoos And Piercings by Steve Albrecht, DBA in The Act of Violence, recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
Any discussion about tattoos and piercings in the workplace should start with full disclosure: I have tattoos. Okay, I have a lot of tattoos. Both of my arms are half-sleeved down to my elbows. I have tattoos all over my left calf, down to the top of my left foot, and on both shoulder blades. I have no piercings, brandings, diamonds on my teeth, or jewelry embedded under my skin. I do have a mustache, but because I was a cop and they made me keep it when I retired, it’s the standard police-issue kind; nothing hairily creative or oddly-shaped about it.
Tattoos today are old hat. In days of yore, your grandpa had a ship’s anchor on his forearm, to commemorate his time in the Navy during WWII, or the guy who worked at the traveling carnival was covered from scalp to toes, or the ex-convict had some weird allegorical freedom symbols scrawled all over his body. Now your bank teller has a butterfly on her wrist, the soccer moms all have flowers on their shoulder blades or their kids’ names wrapped around their ankles, and the guy on the bus in the suit reading Forbes has a full arm sleeve. Go to any public gathering during pleasant weather and you’ll see tattoos everywhere and times ten if it’s an under 30 crowd.
Ask younger adults in the working world about tattoo discrimination and they will begin an extended rant about how companies have no right to make value judgments (read that as “company policies”) about how they choose to adorn their bodies. Tattoo acceptance in the workplace is a matter of company culture, executive ruling, and perhaps even the need to attract, hire, and retain employees that fit a certain demographic. If you run a video game company and you outlaw tattoos for all employees, you may find yourself sitting in the building alone. And does it matter on a construction site if the guys tiling the floors are inked? Does the coffee barista make a better or worse cup of your morning java if he or she has tattoos or doesn’t? Starbucks seems to answer in the negative, since they don’t allow their employees to show their tattoos, and now, it appears, in a new attack on jewelry freedoms, no gem-encrusted rings or diamond-heavy wedding rings on the mitts of their people either. I suppose getting a tourmaline in your latte would be hard on your digestive tract.
The company line defining the balance between acceptable and unacceptable is both thin, judgmental, and seemingly arbitrary. Some firms write policies that prohibit tattoos on their employees’ hands, palms, fingers, necks, or faces, all areas that can’t be covered by long sleeves or pants. Others make no such restrictions, saying only that no tattoos can be racist, anti-religious, demeaning, profane or hostile to anyone. So does that mean you could sport a big piece on your forearm that says, “Darth Vader Sucks” and still be within policy? Some companies have instituted a “percentage policy,“ saying “Employees cannot have more than 30 percent of visible tattoos,” which I imagine causes HR people to carry around their elementary school protractors and have to recall some basic geometry theorems to decide if they have compliance or not.
And piercings and other body modifications, like scarring, branding, or embedding causes HR to have to ask the company lawyers for even more guidelines. For some jobs, pierced ears on men are fine, on others, no way. If you work in a factory, they are going to ask you to remove anything that hangs from your ears or other parts of your body that could get caught in a whirling machine. Makes sense, right? No avulsions here, please. But can your employer decree that you cannot pierce your nose, face, eyebrows, or blow out your ear lobes with plugs if you work in the back office at a loan brokerage and see no clients?
“Why should a business owner or manager care?” is the lament of the tattooed or pierced employee. Why do some companies have strong anti-body modification policies and others have none? The US military and most police and fire departments have strict guidelines, but other first-responders, not so much. What’s the impact on the business, the customers, and other employees? Should it matter to your clients or customers or do they have the same things on their bodies too?
What is the dividing line between allowing employees to express themselves or simply demanding, by policy and the use of progressive discipline, that people toe (they wear rings there too) the line at work and “look like everyone else?” Is this a new form of discrimination, ageism, or “body appearance racism”? Let the lawyers start the battle for what the employers can do versus what employee want to do. “You don’t have to work here and you shouldn’t apply if you’re going to look ‘strange’” is one way some HR people or company brass might look at it. Or, “We hire people who are creative, highly individualistic, and even a little showy and narcissistic. We like that they bring their true selves to the office every day.”
Let’s go the source. Here are the words of a Millennial female employee I know:
“Body modifications are not in the public domain. Many people just assume my tattoos are a conversation piece or some sort of statement. They’re not. They’re simply choices I’ve made as to what I show to others and to myself. Just like another person’s clothes, hair, or weight, it’s none of your business what someone does to modify their own body.”
“In almost every single other case of people being uncomfortable with another person’s appearance, they would be compelled to keep their opinions to themselves. Here, they’ve made it company policy. Because of Baby Boomer bosses, who seem to have an antiquated association of body modification with drunken sailors and convicts, Generations X and Y must now suffer the consequences. The methods, practices, and artistry in tattooing have come a long way since then. We are no longer dealing with badly-scrawled images on servicemen and criminals; we are seeing expensive and exquisitely-done artwork, with our bodies as the canvas, as a temple to adorn with what we choose. This has no bearing on our work ethics, motivation, jobs skills, personality types, or on our past life, work, or educational experiences. It’s just decorated skin.”
“The issue that seems to drive most company policies on tattoos and piercings is wanting their employees to appear ‘professional.’ To this, I’d say we’ve already reached a point where the assumption that ‘professional’ people don’t have tattoos is totally baseless. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, brain surgeons, astrophysicists, cops, firefighters, and grandmothers have tattoos. You’d be hard pressed to find a profession that doesn’t have tattooed people. This is because body modifications are not limiting in any way shape or form. At the heart of the idea of ‘employee professionalism’ is the desire of a business and its people to be perceived as trustworthy, hardworking, service-oriented, helpful, and reassuring. To not allow tattoos or piercings is to assert that people with them are not any of those things. This is a baseless idea, which millions of body modifiers defy at their jobs daily.”