How to Address Exposed Tattoos on Employees

Tattoos are showing up more often in the office.

Tattoos are showing up more often in the office.

Whether you hate tattoos, have always secretly dreamed of getting one but never dared to, or already have a small "Wild Child" tattoo in a place where only a select few will ever see it, you probably realize tattoos are not welcome in many offices. Unless you work in an "anything goes" artistic environment or behind the scenes at a company with no customer contact, tattoos aren't likely an acceptable part of office attire. And if you're a supervisor, you could find yourself faced with having to counsel an inked employee. Your best bet is a clear company policy on the subject, but even without that, you can still require employees to cover visible tattoos when they're at work.

Review your company's dress and appearance policy and the employee handbook. If tattoos are covered in these materials, refer to them when addressing an employee about her exposed tattoos. Explain that company policy requires exposed tattoos to be covered at work to maintain the firm's professional image and to avoid upsetting clients, if that's the case. If there is no established policy regarding tattoos, you should probably recommend to the company's human resources department that they update the guidelines to include what the company's expectations on the subject are.

Talk to the tattooed employee privately. Explain that you support her rights to express herself in this way off the job, but that the nature of your business requires a more conservative image at work. Talk about how she might use clothing or makeup to cover her exposed artwork in keeping with workplace norms. If you're challenged with the "freedom of expression" argument, remind the employee that recent legal precedent does not support the claim that tattoos should be considered free speech.

Create a clear understanding with employees about the consequences for failing to keep their tattoos under wraps at the office. Not only does the policy need to be clear and well-publicized, it needs to specify what happens if someone doesn't comply. A first offense might warrant a verbal warning, the second offense a written reprimand, and so on, up to and including dismissal. The "keep your tattoos covered" policy and its consequences should track with comparable policy on such things as dress code violations or using profanity in the office.

Tip

  • Be empathetic when dealing with your tattooed employees, and don't let your personal feelings about tattoos color your discussions with them. Keep the conversation focused on the company's policy, the workplace culture and why the policy was implemented in the first place.

Warning

  • Ensure any policy dealing with exposed tattoos is applied in the same manner to both men and women to prevent charges of discrimination.
 

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

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