Employers Can Regulate Appearance – Even Tattoos, Piercings

May 18, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Of the all the issues on the plates of HR managers these days, one of the more unusual may turn out to be how to deal with employees sporting body tattoos or piercings.

With 16% of all US adults having at least one piece of body art and 36% of those between age 25 and 29 with at least one tattoo (according to a Harris Interactive poll), the issue is not likely to remain an isolated problem, according to a Richmond Times Dispatch report.

Employers are not without their rights when it comes to imposing standards that could limit tattoos and piercings among their workers. That is because companies have the right to impose dress codes and appearance policies, asserted Mark Dare, a Virginia employment-law attorney.“It is more of an issue than it used to be as more people who have these kinds of piercings and tattoos enter and move up in the workforce,” Dare told the newspaper. “There is more pressure on the employers.”

Also, legal protections barring workplace discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, religion, national origin and disability do not extend to dress and appearance, said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.“Those laws are not about appearance,” Willis told the Times Dispatch. “They are about discrimination . . . and they are civil-rights laws that are broadly intended to reduce discrimination in our society.”

If managers decide to restrict workplace tattoos, they will probably have a good deal of support among the workforce. Many Americans who don’t have tattoos think people with tattoos are less attractive (42%), less sexy (36%), and less intelligent (31%), according to the Harris poll.

In fact, 39% of Americans think employers should be allowed not to hire someone based on appearance, clothing, piercings, body art or hairstyle, according to a 2005 poll commissioned by the Employment Law Alliance, a global network of law firms with labor and employment practices.

While corporate dress codes and appearance policies vary with workplace, many, such as the one at Philip Morris USA, address overall appearance, not tattoos and body piercings, Bill Phelps, spokesman for the company, told the newspaper.

“Our employees are expected to ensure that their dress projects a professional image,” Phelps said.