I have a small family business and I like my employees to look professional. I am finally hiring again and am dismayed at the tattoos and other “body art” that some applicants have. Am I going to be sued if I don’t want to hire someone with a visible tattoo?


Employers are permitted to adopt reasonable and non-discriminatory dress codes and appearance policies for their work force. Employers are generally free to prohibit visible tattoos and body piercings at work by requiring that tattoos be covered, and that body or other jewelry be limited, or not worn at all. Your policy can also address an employee’s general appearance, with requirements regarding acceptable attire, as well as required cleanliness and appearance of clothing. For example, employees can be prohibited from wearing inappropriate clothing (e.g., t-shirts, tennis shoes, etc.) and can be required to ensure that the clothing they wear is neat and unwrinkled.

Employers need to be careful not to implement policies regarding personal appearance that could be considered discriminatory with regard to an employee’s age, religion, race, national origin, disability, gender, or any other category that is protected by the law. Also, employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices which could involve body piercing, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Prohibiting all tattoos and body piercings may expose an employer to claims of discrimination based on religion or national origin.

According to a Harris Poll released Feb. 23, 2012, attitudes towards tattoos are changing rapidly. 21% of adults in the U.S. have at least one tattoo, up from 14% in 2003. However, people who do not have tattoos have different opinions than their tattooed counterparts.

50% of people without tattoos think those with body art are more rebellious than their non-tattooed counterparts, 45% said people with tattoos are less attractive, 39% said they are less sexy, 27% said they are less intelligent and 25% said they are less healthy than others.
According to the Harris poll, those with body art said their tattoos make them feel:

  • Sexy (30%).
  • Rebellious (25%).
  • Attractive or strong (21%).
  • Spiritual (16%).
  • Healthy (9%).
  • Intelligent (8%).
  • Athletic (5%).

The poll also revealed:

  • Tattoos are most common in the Western U.S. (26%) and least prevalent in the South (18%).
  • Adults aged 30-39 are most likely to have tattoos (38%) compared to those in other age groups. Thirty percent of those aged 25-29 and 22% of those 18-24 have tattoos, as do 27% of those 40-49.
  • Women are more likely to have a tattoo than men (23% vs. 19%), reversing the male-dominated trend for the first time since Harris began exploring this topic in polls.
  • 86% of those with tattoos said they never regretted getting a tattoo.

You may want to consider to what degree your grooming and appearance policy is driven by actual business needs, and how much of it is personal preference. Employers need to keep in mind that applying rigid grooming and appearance standards in the workplace may eliminate certain potential employees from consideration for employment, even though they may be well qualified and could be an asset to the company.
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