June 20th heralded the first day of summer and, for many, the change in work attire from cold weather clothing to warm weather clothing. Warm weather means less clothing and less clothing can mean the display of more skin. The more skin displayed can mean a greater likelihood that body art (tattoos and piercings) will be on display. Body Art, as a form of self expression, is on the rise. Research has indicated that 36% – 40% of 18 to 40 year olds have at least one tattoo and 22% – 30% of 18 to 40 year olds have at least one piercing other than their ears. Given these facts, the annual “appropriate summer attire” communication may be an opportune time to clarify Company guidelines about displays of body art.
Employers have historically had a fair amount of latitude to set dress and appearance policies appropriate to their work place as long as the policy does not discriminate and is supported by reasonable business expectations. This is especially true where there are safety issues or when employees have front line interaction with customers. Just as a company may require no open toed shoes due to safety hazards, a company may require employees to cover or remove piercings if there is a safety risk of getting the jewelry caught in machinery. If employees’ jobs involve interaction with customers they may be asked to dress conservatively – no shorts, tank tops, or apparel showing the midriff. They may also be asked to remove or cover sexually graphic, violent or large tattoos that may be offensive to the general public.
The key for the HR professional when establishing these guidelines is to balance the needs of the business with the public it serves and from which it recruits. Too strict of a policy may be less offensive to the general public but may result in challenges recruiting qualified employees, particularly those in the age groups more likely to have body art.. Too lenient of a policy may lend itself to greater employee satisfaction because the employer supports self expression but may discourage patronage by the public who find that level of self expression offensive.
The best way to ensure a balanced and successful policy is to involve a balanced segment of stakeholders in determining appropriate guidelines. A committee comprised of some management, some front line employees, and perhaps some customers and/or investors will go a long way towards building a balanced policy and buy-in among staff. This same group should be involved in communicating the policy and explaining business cases for restrictions. It is then up to the company to ensure that the policy is administered consistently and fairly.