ACFO at a major firm recently stated: “Do whatever you want to your body, but I don’t want to be subjected to it in the workplace.” He went on to say, “It’s a distraction and it’s especially important to hide when investors visit the office.”1 According to a 2006 study, almost half of Americans between the ages of 21 and 32 have at least one tattoo or a body piercing other than in an ear. An earlier poll found that men and women both say their tattoos make them feel sexy and rebellious, while men and women who don’t have tattoos say body art is unsightly and they think those who have them are less intelligent and less attractive.2
Though many young people are unaware of this history, tattoos were once the noticeable mark of bikers, sailors, and felons. All that seems to be changing as new demographic groups, especially young people, have begun to have tattoos and display body jewelry more than ever before.3 It’s My Body. The idea of employees displaying body art or body jewelry remains somewhat controversial, and it does raise the question of what rights employers have vis-à-vis employees. Many young people continue to argue that their bodies are their own, and they can do with them whatever they please. They argue that it is a matter of individuality, and no one has a right to restrict that. Furthermore, some say, who does it hurt? One authority argued that the issue of tattoos and body piercings reflects the tension between the individual and the institution that is inherent in the American psyche. What is at stake is a nonverbal form of self-expression.4 Appearance and Safety Are Factors. Employers, on the other hand, argue that they do have the right to be protected against certain types of employee appearance, and restricting tattoos and body jewelry certainly falls into that category. Certain types of professions, such as the police and the military, have been adopting stricter policies on how much and what kinds of body art may be shown.5
In 2006, the U.S. Marine Corps began prohibiting sleeve tattoos that would be visible when Marines wear their exercise uniforms. Some police agencies find any visible tattoo excessive. Some agencies seem to be tightening up following a 2006 U.S. appeals court ruling that found that Hartford, Connecticut, police officers’ tattoos do not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be subject to departmental uniform rules.6 In traditional suit-and-tie industries, employers continue to argue that it is all a matter of professionalism, and they have a right to regulate appearance standards, especially when contact with the public is involved. According to a professor of communications, “the bottom line matters. If customers are going to be put off by tattoos, then businesses have the right to say, ‘We don’t want that here.’”7
In some industries, piercings raise concerns about health and safety issues. For example, many restaurants, cafes, and grocers disapprove of pierced employees handling food, which may be a risk to customers. Also, some manufacturing firms are concerned about jewelry getting caught in machines and equipment. No Problem in Some Businesses. By contrast, some businesses apparently have no problem with body jewelry and tattoos and say that tolerating them helps them recruit young workers who may not feel as welcome in more conservative environments. For example, at workplaces like design firms, salons, and retailers targeting youth, the presence of body art and tattoos is not uncommon. It all depends on the industry and management’s preferences.8
Dress and Appearance Codes. Some experts say it all comes down to the employer’s dress code. Dress codes also cover appearance factors. Sometimes companies call their guidelines “Appearance Codes” so that they are interpreted to include all aspects of individual appearance.9 The key seems to be that the dress code can limit visible tattoos and body jewelry just so long as the company’s policy is enforced consistently across all employee groups. In other words, companies do believe they have the right to restrict these items as long as they have a clearly enforced and consistently applied policy. But What About My Rights? Many employees still maintain that they have a right to have their tattoos and body jewelry even if it means their tattoos, tongue studs, and rows of rings ringing their ears or eyebrows are visible. Some claim they have freedom of speech rights under the Constitution that gives them the right to appear as they wish. A rare employee claims his or her religion as justification for visible decorations. 10 With tattoos and body jewelry becoming so common and accepted, is it ethical for an employer to control and suppress an employee’s individuality and appearance in the name of profits? Questions for Discussion
1. What are the economic, legal, and ethical issues in this case?
2. Who are the stakeholders and what are their stakes?
3. Do individual employees have the final right to their individuality? To their appearance?
4. Can employers legally restrict tattoos and body jewelry in the workplace through dress and appearance codes?
5. Could an employer refuse to hire a person who has body art or body piercings even though he or she agrees to keep them hidden?
6. Where will this issue be in 10 years?
1. Quoted in Madlen Read, “Tattoos, Piercings Slip into Dress Codes,” October 18, 2006, http://www.breitbart.com/article.php? id=2006-10-18_D8KR5GDO0&show_article =1&cat=biz, retrieved September 26, 2007.
2. Michael Felton-O’Brien, “Inked at Work,” July 16, 2007, http://www.hreonline.com/ HRE/story.jsp?storyId=20189555, retrieved July 23, 2007.
5. Matt Reed, “Tattoos: Official Blots on Reputations?” USA Today (July 23, 2007), 3A.
7. Felton-O’Brien, ibid.
8. Madlen Read, ibid.
9. “But It’s My Body Art, and I Like It!” http:// hr.blr.com/whitepapers.aspx?id=75704, retrieved September 26, 2007.