Debates About Tattoos in the Workplace

Are tattoos acceptable at work?
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Society has become pretty open minded when it comes to diversity and personal expression in the workplace. Body art, such as tattoos, wild hair colors and piercings, have become common, especially with a younger workforce taking personal expression to new levels. Yet, the debate continues about displaying tattoos freely at work. Should every business have a policy to avoid offensive skin art?

How Many Employees Have Tattoos?

    A 2012 Harris Interactive poll indicated that one in five adults in the United States has at least one tattoo, meaning there probably will be someone in every work department with a tattoo. The Harris poll also said that adults aged 30 to 39 are most likely to have a tattoo, with individuals in their 20s closely following. "The New York Times" has reported that a survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that as many as 45 million Americans have tattoos. It’s clear that Generation X and Y are leading the trend toward acceptance of body art in the workplace in a big way.

    Tattoos are popular among younger workers.

What the Tattoo Debate is About

    For many employers, the appearance of tattoos on employees is undesirable, especially in client-facing roles. For decades, tattoos and other forms of body art have been connected to a not-so-clean lifestyle. The Harris Interactive poll stated that 50 percent of people without tattoos perceive those with tattoos as more rebellious or capable of deviant behavior. Yet, clean-cut business professionals are choosing to get tattoos and other body art as a form of self-expression, not rebellion. The actual debate is not whether employees should have tattoos, but rather whether tattoos should be covered up while on the company’s time. Many times, the rules depend on the type of work environment that the employees work in. For example, it can be one thing to display tattoos in a casual retail setting, but in a hospital, it may be a big no-no.

    Some see tattoos as rebellion.

Should Tattoos Be Banned in the Workplace?

    On the employee side of the debate, people who have tattoos believe that they should have the right to show off their body art freely and without prejudice from others, and without the fear that they won’t be able to get a job. In fact, employers need to be wary about enforcing rules that exclude employees with tattoos. Leslie Ayres, founder of The Real Job Guru and Author of "Be Yourself & Get the Job (and Life) of Your Dreams!" wrote on Work Goes Strong, that “Companies need to attract bright young minds who can keep up in a fast-changing business climate, and chances are that some of those capable young people have tattoos, and would prefer not having to spend energy pretending that they don't.” Americans might feel that they should be able to get a tattoo in the pursuit of happiness. But in the workplace, it is the right of the employer to dictate whether employees can show their tattoos in a written policy on body art.

    Some Americans believe they have a right to have tattoos.

Why Employers Should Have a Policy About Tattoos

    On the employer side of the debate, all HR departments should have a formal, written policy concerning tattoos in the workplace. An "American Bar Association Journal" article from 2008 advises that courts have upheld employers’ rights to ban the display of all forms of body art in the work environment. This is for several reasons. The first is to manage the perception that clients and other employees may have about tattoos on workers. Many are still conservative and find tattoos offensive. Therefore, it is acceptable to create a workplace policy that requires employees to cover their tattoos in a reasonable manner. Secondly, any potentially harmful image that an employee may project, whether intentionally or not, is subject to discipline, up to termination. Therefore, employers should put this policy in writing to protect their interests. The debate may rage on, but it is up to each employer to decide what is best for the company image.

    Companies should have policies on tattoos at work.

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