Previously, tattoos carried a fairly harsh stigma in professional settings and many employers banned visible tattoos in their dress code policies. However, that view shifted dramatically as millennials and later Gen Z entered the workforce. Now, most Americans are more open-minded about tattoos at work and less likely to view them as unprofessional. But does that mean that you should change your company’s policy?
Many of the nation’s top employers — including the military — have relaxed their tattoo policies in recent years, so it’s worth revisiting your policy to make sure that it’s not outdated. Though of course, business owners know their customers best, so it’s definitely worth factoring in the opinions of customers and employees. If you’re considering amending your dress code to allow tattoos at work, explore the potential benefits and key considerations below to help you shape your organization’s tattoo policy.
Do employers have to allow tattoos?
The first question for many employers is whether or not they can legally prohibit tattoos. The general answer is yes. In most cases, employers do not legally have to allow visible tattoos or piercings at work. There is no federal law banning tattoo discrimination and employers are legally allowed to impose dress and personal grooming standards and are allowed to factor tattoos into hiring decisions with one major exception.
Like other dress code policies, there do sometimes have to be accommodations made if the dress code is in conflict with an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs. One important distinction here is that tattoos are only protected if the tattoo is integral to the employee’s religious practice and that covering the tattoo would interfere with that practice. Many people choose to get religious imagery or quotes from religious texts tattooed on them as part of their personal expression of their religion, but they do not need to receive a religious accommodation.
Advantages of allowing tattoos at work
It’s always important to keep your specific industry, location, and target clientele in mind when deciding on the best tattoo policy for your company.
Creating an inclusive company culture
Relaxing your dress code around visible tattoos or other limitations on self-expression such as unusual hair colors or visible piercings can help build a more welcoming company culture. Creating more of a relaxed “come as you are” type of environment can help employees feel like they can be themselves at work which is great for building morale and facilitating stronger team bonding.
Showcasing creativity and building relatability
Allowing visible body art can actually help build credibility in creative fields. Well-done and creative body art can reflect well on employees in creative fields like cosmetology, graphic design, and more. Customers may also find employees more relatable if they are able to showcase more of their personalities at work through visible tattoos, accessories, or interesting hair colors.
Stereotypes about tattoos may not reflect on the employer
There are still a lot of people that hold negative stereotypes about people with tattoos. Tattoos have been largely accepted by younger generations, but employers serving older customers or those with more traditional views may worry that having tattooed employees may reflect poorly on their brand.
A recent study found that negative stereotypes about tattoos did not negatively impact customers’ perceptions of the organization employing tattooed workers or their products. This is important as it shows that customers that hold a bias against tattooed employees will not generally take that bias out on the company.
One of the main purposes of crafting dress code policies is that companies don’t want the employees’ personal appearance to reflect poorly on the brand or its products. That’s why upscale restaurants or retail stores typically require more formal uniforms or attire, as casual clothing may not fit the desired brand image. If the employee can still dress in a manner that upholds the necessary image and the tattoos aren’t harming customer opinions, then it may be worth easing restrictions on tattoos.
Widening the talent pool
Arguably one of the best reasons to relax tattoo policies in your organization is to widen the potential talent pool. Is it really worth missing out on top talent because they have some ink on their skin? Depending on the area that your business is located in, banning tattoos may significantly limit your talent pool. In non-customer-facing roles, it’s often not worth missing out on good candidates or making current talent uncomfortable by forcing them to wear long sleeves or layers in the summer.
Considerations when crafting your workplace tattoo policy
If you do decide to allow tattoos, there are a few limitations or factors that you may want to consider such as the following.
You don’t have to go all or nothing with your tattoo policy necessarily. Some employers may allow visible tattoos on employees’ arms but not on the face or neck. This is actually the dress code that most military personnel need to follow as even the U.S. military has lowered restrictions on tattoos. Face tattoos often carry a larger stigma and are more noticeable when an employee is speaking with a customer.
Depending on your industry, it may make sense to provide some guidelines for new tattoos for sanitary purposes. Foodservice or healthcare workers may be advised to cover up new tattoos during the healing process just as they should any other open wound. The skin may also start to peel or flake during healing, and that can be problematic if it’s on their arm or hands. You don’t want someone getting a piece of flaked-off skin in their dinner after all.
Consider advising employees with unhealed tattoos to wear gloves, and bandage or wrap tattoos at work during the healing process. Most employees should be okay with this, as it’s also important for them to keep their new tattoo clean and dry to prevent infection, so covering it during work hours can act as a safety precaution for them as well.
Tattoos that should not be allowed
Altering your workplace dress code to allow visible tattoos does not mean that any and all tattoos should be allowed. Your dress code probably does not allow for clothing that contains profanity on it, so it is reasonable to request that tattoos containing profanity be covered while at work as well. Tattoos that include hate symbols, graphic or offensive imagery, and gang-affiliated symbols, slogans, or imagery should also be banned even in tattoo-friendly workplaces.
Do employers even need a tattoo policy anymore?
Many employers question whether they even need to create a formal tattoo policy these days. If you’re fine with tattoos, does that really need to be added to the employee handbook or documented in a formal company policy?
With almost anything in human resources and employment matters, it’s better to err on the side of caution and document your policy. The primary reason for this is the problematic tattoos discussed above. Documenting your tattoo policy and having employees acknowledge it in your handbook gives you a clear paper trail if an employee ever comes in with a sexually explicit tattoo or a hate symbol. These tattoos can create a hostile work environment for other employees who may feel threatened or harassed by the presence of such tattoos in their workplace.
You may be thinking that you simply wouldn’t hire someone with those kinds of tattoos. However, many people with tattoos where long sleeves to job interviews before learning of the new jobs tattoo policy, so you not even be able to weed out candidates with inappropriate tattoos during the hiring process. Having a clear policy in place allows you as the employer to set clear expectations from the start and ensure that employees know what types of tattoos they need to cover.