Professional dress code and Tattoos
Business Tips by Burleson Consulting
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
- 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
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
- 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
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
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
Corporations have every right to discriminate against "optional"
appearance-related traits, and many large corporations ban long hair, beards and
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
Stores, Inc. v. CHRO, the Connecticut Supreme Court established the
standard for reviewing dress codes under the Connecticut Fair Employment
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.
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
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 Vault.com, 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
"There are undoubtedly people who have
tattoos (but) it's certainly not conspicuous," says spokesperson Roger
"Non-offensive" tattoos OK to show
"If they're not offensive, I don't see it
as an issue," says spokesman Thomas Williams.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
"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
"Non-offensive" tattoos permitted
"It's left up to people to use their own
discretion," said spokeswoman Anne Marie Gattari.
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.
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Professional dress and Tattoos,
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