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Professional dress code and Tattoos

Business Tips by Burleson Consulting

With today's strong interest into "Body Art", the question arises as to how people with tattoos can advance within American professional careers.  Some corporations maintain a strict policy against visible tattoos, especially companies that must make a good impression on the general public. 

Tattoos have a curious history

  • 1850 - 1900 - Tattoos used to be the bastion of carnival freak shows, with people flocking to the circus to see the amazing tattooed Lady.
  • 1900 - 1950 - Tattoos in the early 20th century indicated a Sailor or Marine.  In these cases, they did not have any social stigma, except that tattoos were generally indicative of enlisted men.  Few Navy or Marine officers dared to draw on their body.
  • 1950 - 1960 - In the early 1950's, tattoos became popular with the criminal element, mostly outlaw bikers, social outcasts and the mentally ill.  It was during this time tattoos took on a more ominous reputation.
  • 1960 - 1990 - This was the age of "prison tats" where having a tattoo indicated to some people that you were a tough felon.
  • 1990-2008 - Today we see hordes of young people drawing on themselves with free abandon, (almost 30% of people in the 1980's).  These people do not understand that a tattoo may effectively prohibit them from pursuing some professional careers, regardless of their other qualifications.

Today, a prejudice still exists within corporate America about tattoos.

Don't kid yourself about the importance of hiding or removing tattoos.  If you look at middle management and above in any of the Fortune 50 companies, you will be hard pressed to find any managers that have visible tattoos.

Corporate Dress Codes and tattoos

A study by Careerbuilders shows the perils of tattoos for aspiring professionals, and confirms the conventional wisdom that tattoos are a bad choice for anyone who hopes to work in a corporate position:

  • Over 42 percent of managers said their opinion of someone would be lowered by that person's visible body art.
  • Three out of four respondents believe that visible tattoos are unprofessional.

You don't have to look hard to find hundreds of corporations which have banned employees with tattoos.  San Bernardino County California, bars all employees from wearing denim, having visible tattoos, and any piercing in the nose, lip, or tongue that contains jewelry.

In sum, tattoos are not well received by corporate America and could hamper your success if you choose a career in a corporate position.

Hiding tattoos is important in corporate America

Many tattooed people think that they are protected by their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.  Unfortunately, this is not true in the workplace. 

Corporations have every right to discriminate against "optional" appearance-related traits, and many large corporations ban long hair, beards and visible tattoos.

Sometimes hiding a tattoo is not enough.  There have been cases where an employee reveals a tattoo at a company gathering or event like a softball game or a barbeque in view of their manager, who, in turn, finds other reasons to terminate the employee.  If you live in an employment "at will" state, remember that you can be fired for no reason at all.

First Amendment Freedom of Expression and Tattoo laws

This article titled "Body art in the workplace" confirms that companies have a constitutional right to ban employees with tattoos:

Companies can limit employees' personal expression on the job as long as they do not impinge on their civil liberties. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not discriminate or hinder a person's race, color, religion, age, national origin, or gender.

There is a strong legal basis for discriminating against the tattooed, especially if the employer fears that having tattooed employees might hurt their professional image:

In the landmark court case Pik-Wik Stores, Inc. v. CHRO, the Connecticut Supreme Court established the standard for reviewing dress codes under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.

In Pik-Wik, an employee complained about a grooming standard that required men to wear their hair "off the collar and above the ears." The employee argued that the policy discriminated against him on the basis of gender because women were not subject to the same standard. The court rejected the argument concluding that the grooming standard was non-discriminatory because it did not deny equal employment opportunities on the basis of an immutable characteristic, e.g., sex, race, national origin, disability or religion.

This Kentucky case verified that employers can fire employees who have exposed tattoos:

A dress code that required tucked-in shirts and covered tattoos for Kentucky State Parks employees did not violate the civil rights of three fired maintenance workers, a federal appeals court ruled.

However, regardless of the legalities and rights of people to look as they wish, many states have "at will" laws.  These statutes allow you to quit at any time, for any reason, and allows corporations to fire employees at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all.

Are attitudes towards tattoos changing?

This WSJ article titled "Tattoos and Piercings
Come Out at the Office
", notes that attitudes in corporate America may be changing to become more tolerant of tattoos in the lower ranks, and the prejudice towards tattoo owners is also fading, but "discrete" tattoos still remain the most popular:

"Mr. Hempel, the Inverness lawyer, says he "doesn't flaunt his tattoos around the office." According to a 2001 survey on tattoos in the workplace from the Internet site, which deals with work issues, the most popular placements of tattoos are areas that can be hidden: the backs, arms and legs."

"Non-offensive" tattoos permitted "I've seen people at all levels with tattoos and piercings," says spokeswoman Barbara Murphy.
White & Case
New York City
None "There are undoubtedly people who have tattoos (but) it's certainly not conspicuous," says spokesperson Roger Cohen.
Wal-Mart Stores
Bentonville, Ark.
"Non-offensive" tattoos OK to show "If they're not offensive, I don't see it as an issue," says spokesman Thomas Williams.
Tenet Healthcare
Santa Barbara, Calif.
None "The key point in our policy is that the appearance must be appropriate to the position," says spokes-person Steven Campanini. "What we do is rely on local hospitals to enforce what is appropriate."
Ford Motor
Dearborn, Mich.
"Non-offensive" tattoos permitted "It's left up to people to use their own discretion," said spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari.
Subway Restaurants
Milford, Conn.
Discrete tattoos permitted Company literature specifies: "Non-dangling earrings in the ears only. Any other visible parts of body may not be adorned with jewelry."

This article it also talks about a senior executive at Inverness Medical Innovations Inc. who has tattoos and is rather proud of the fact.

For more insights, please see my related notes on Professional Dress Code, Professional dress and Tattoos, Professional Perks, etiquette requirements, Cross-Cultural Guidelines, forum guidelines and obfuscation requirements, Inappropriate corporate sponsorship of charitiesprofessional golf etiquette  and Professional Corporate Tipping tips



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