Does body art and tattoos bias hiring managers?

We make hundreds of judgments about people every day, many of them based on personal preferences. Personal prejudices don’t stop at the office door either. This poses a particularly compromising situation for employers. Since the whole interview process is essentially one big judgment session, why would you think a manager would just look away from body art (aka tattoos) and body piercings? 

Today’s hiring managers tend to be from a generation when tattoos were limited to Marines, bikers and gypsies. When these managers interviewed for their first jobs, even facial hair for men and open-toe shoes for women were a no-no. Today, facial hair is commonplace and hair length runs from the shaven head to a neatly tied pony-tail. Female candidates arrive to the interview with cleavage exposed and “dressy” flip-flops. If you take a look around most workplaces today, employers have either given up trying to regulate dress code or just don’t care. 

But that still doesn’t stop candidates from getting under the skin of hiring managers with almost any display of tattoos and piercings. That’s a problem because 40% of adults ages 18 to 40 now have a tattoo or non-earlobe piercing, according to the Pew Research Center’s Gen Next Survey.

Young workers — even those going through business school and looking to be corporate leaders one day — have ramped up both the number and placement of this body art. Such markings started to become more mainstream due to the tattooed punk movement of the 1980s. This has created a firestorm of activity to create personal appearance policies that include rules about tattoos and piercings. But as many employers will tell you, it’s not that easy without discriminating against certain classes of workers and without significantly reducing the size of the talent pool. 

In fact, despite all the talk from HR and management about the unprofessional appearance of candidates, just 36% of organizations surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management had a policy for body piercing; and only 22% had policies for body art. That compares to 97% of organizations that maintained policies on clothing and 70% on footwear.

Candidates and employees often feel the employer has no right to restrict the display of piercings and tattoos. That’s not true. Companies can limit employees’ personal expression on the job as long as they don’t infringe on their civil liberties. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they don’t discriminate against a person’s race, color, religion, age, national origin or gender. Companies faced with inked and pierced applicants can demand eyebrow rings or tongue rings be removed and tattoos covered to help project the proper image to customers. That is because some customers, particularly older ones who dislike tattoos, could be turned off and they may be less likely to do business with it. Loss of business is a justifiable reason to restrict the display of body art in whatever form it takes.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to enforce. For instance, let’s say you deem it okay for a female employee to have a maximum of two visible piercings, limited to the ear. But you forbid male employees from wearing even one earring. Does this open up the employer to gender discrimination? What if the nose piercing is a religious tradition? Does this exempt the employee from the policy?

Employers will be expected to prove that any policy is job-relevant and just driven by personal preference or bias. Those who disapprove of inked-up and pierced workers must learn to accept those who are willing to follow company guidelines and request that these employees cover up their tattoos and jewelry — or face a shrinking pool of applicants too.

Like facial hair and long hair for men and open-toe shoes and mandatory skirts and stockings for women, tattoos and piercing policies will eventually become relics. I expect there will be a sea change in attitudes toward tattoos in the next 25 years as tattooed and pierced peers begin running more companies. But what goes around comes around. I wonder how the next generation of workers will test their bosses regarding what’s acceptable attire in the office. Then again, the concept of “going to work” is already becoming a thing of the past.

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