To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo? That is the Question Many Employees Are Asking Themselves

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Tattoos and body piercings are no longer relegated to the young and restless. They can now be found in the corporate boardroom and the doctor’s office.

The Kansas City Star reports, however, that the issue of tattoos in the workplace is affecting the relationship between employers and employees. Particularly, it is putting a strain on hiring policies.

The paper points out that although having a tattoo or body piercing is perfectly legal and protected under the First Amendment, employers have a right to deny employment to the visibly tatted. Several American courts have ruled that unless the tattoo or piercing is for a religious or class observance, employers have full power to discriminate against people of color…in their skin.

Why do employers have this right? According to many court analysts, employers have an inherent right to regulate the appearance of their employees. Physical features that are “mutable” (i.e. capable of change) are not protected under the law in the workplace. Technically, tattoos are reversible, though tattoo removal is often an expensive and painful process.

Inevitably, this has cause tension between the generally older managerial class and up-and-coming younger workers. According to the New York Times, 23% of Americans have at least one tattoo. Furthermore, 32% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 45 have a tattoo.

However, the workplace dynamics across America are changing. Because tattoos are more common in younger generations, employers often struggle to fully enforce the ban of visible tattoos. A study recently conducted by business professors at Texas AandM University-Corpus Christi suggests that employers should be more lenient with tattoo and piercing bans, considering these bans can block otherwise capable and willing talent from the workforce.

“Some of today’s best candidates may have modifications that you consider undesirable,” wrote Profs. Brian Elzweig and Donna Peeples in the study. “Who knows, as these people grow and mature in their careers, the modifications may suddenly disappear. After all, they have to be competitive in their market.”

The professors point out the fact that tattoos and piercings are still relatively rare in the upper echelons of business, and that the higher-ups in general “subliminally” discriminate against potential employees with body art, due to the attitude that they are uncouth in the business world.

The study recommends that if employers are adamant in banning tattooed employees, they should do so without regard to gender. For example, if a company bans women from having colored highlights in their hair, they should extend that ban to men. If men are required to remove facial piercings or cover tattoos, then their female counterparts should conform to the same standards.

Regardless of what older or more conservative employers think about tattoos, the fact remains that the younger generation, whose acceptance of body art is well-known, will eventually come to replace them and will determine rules accordingly.