Is Body Art OK for Your Workforce?

Does your company have a workplace policy on piercings and tattoos?

Is Body Art OK for Your Workforce?

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When I was a kid, the only person I could name who had a tattoo was Popeye the Sailor Man. Back then, tattoos were mostly reserved for “sailor men” and they usually depicted anchors or sometimes hearts that featured “Mother” or “Edna” or some other woman’s name. Anyone else with a tattoo was a bit suspect. Biker gang members had tattoos. Business people did not.

Fast-forward to 2012 when the Harris Interactive research people reported that one in five American adults surveyed said they had a tattoo. It’s safe to assume that number is even higher in 2022. Also, about 7 percent of American adults polled by Harris in 2012 said they had a piercing somewhere on their body other than their earlobes, and 4 percent reported a facial piercing not on the ear. This makes piercings less popular than tattoos, but you could still find yourself sitting across the desk reviewing the job application of someone with a nose ring or eyebrow spike.

Do you care? Would it affect your hiring decision? All things being equal, would you hire someone with no visible tattoos or piercings over someone who could be on the cover of Inked magazine or set off an airport metal detector with their face?


Is It Discrimination? While it’s legal to turn someone down for a job because they have tattoos or piercings, it’s not legal to use piercings or tattoos as a reason to terminate an employee. I guess people who write laws assume you noticed that viper tattoo on your employee’s forehead before you extended the job offer.

Employees are a reflection of a company. On one hand, hiring an employee with visible tattoos, piercings or both shows your company values an individual’s uniqueness. Not prohibiting these things may even help you attract some talented workers and retain them because they feel valued for who they are.

How you feel about it may depend on how frequently your employees deal with customers face to face and how accepting people in your part of the world are of body art. If 90 percent of your business is serving military, law enforcement and tactical shooters, it’s almost a given that no one will notice or care if your workers are full of tats and metal. But if you’re more in the hunting space and your clientele skews older or more conservative, it might be a bit more of a consideration.

In case you were wondering, those Harris pollsters also asked what people thought about tattoos. In that same survey, 24 percent of the respondents said they think people with tattoos are more likely to do something most people would consider deviant and 74 percent didn’t think tattoos made a difference.

Maybe you’re fine with any and all tattoos and piercings. Maybe you’re personally OK with some piercings and ink, but think too much could make customers uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t want anyone with any visible body art representing your company … ever. It’s up to you to decide.


Religious Considerations 

There is some gray area when it comes to religious body art. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers with 15 or more employees “must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”

If an employee vaguely implies that her tattoo is spiritual, you are probably within your rights to ask her to cover it. If a tattoo or piercing is part of a seriously held religious belief or practice, an exception to a no visible tattoos policy should probably be made to avoid the appearance of religious discrimination. Clarify that this one exception does not nullify the rule for everyone else.


Job Safety Concerns 

With piercings, there may be more than just aesthetic reasons to prohibit exposing them on the job. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends those who work with machinery that has moving parts avoid wearing any jewelry on the job because it could get caught in machinery. Consider what your employees will be doing on the job — like in your gunsmithing or machining room if you have one — and if piercings could be a hazard.

Have a Written Policy 

Many companies have what are known as “appearance policies” that go beyond a dress code to address tattoos, piercings and extreme styles like purple spiky hair.

All employees should be required to read and sign the appearance policy. Consider your employees and your customers when writing it, and make it as restrictive as you believe necessary to avoid employee appearance negatively affecting your business. It’s best to have a policy in place before there’s an issue rather than creating a policy in response to an employee getting a tattoo or piercing.

Keep in mind that both men and women have tattoos and piercings, so make your policy gender neutral to avoid the appearance of sexual discrimination. If you permit a female employee to have a nose ring, you have to allow a male employee to have a nose ring. If a man can show his bicep tat, a woman shouldn’t be required to cover the butterfly on her ankle. And if your policy requires offensive tattoos be covered, clarify your definition of offensive.

You can differentiate between employees who work in public or interact with customers and those who don’t, but beyond that any appearance policy must be consistently applied. Be up-front about it with job applicants. If a job seeker isn’t willing to remove their ear gauges, cover their tats or otherwise comply with the policy and you’re unwilling to change it for all, maybe they are not the best person for the job. That’s sad, of course, because Popeye was always strong to the “finich,” and what company couldn’t use a guy like him around?

In all likelihood, an inked-up job applicant may say, “I yam what I yam,” like Popeye, but requiring long-sleeved company shirts might be a workable compromise if he needs the job and you need his abilities. 


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