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Tattoos — A Trending Employee Relations Issue for 2016

Nov 30, 2015
Deb Muller


The green and black headline announces, “TATTOOS. Yes!” and is accompanied by a thumbs up graphic sporting a coffee cup tattoo on the wrist. Along with other changes, Starbucks announced its revised employee dress code policy on October 16th, and social media lit up with a barrage of employee comments. While relaxing some previous standards for tattoos and denim, the new dress code policy, Making an Appearance, made other rules, such as one on wearing jewelry, stricter.

As companies continue to grapple with low levels of employee engagement, the workplace dress code has risen in importance as a component of employee relations policy. A corporate dress code can encompass everything from the colors, types and material of employee clothing to headgear, body art and piercings. Attitudes and fashion trends change, so it is not surprising to see shifts in dress code standards, and this year has been all about the tattoo, often referred to as body art.

In 2015, Starbucks was not the only company reconfiguring their dress code and revisiting their guidelines on tattoos. Well known corporations such as Walmart, Abercrombie & Fitch and PetSmart did as well.

If your organization is thinking about tweaking its dress code guidelines for employees, here are three key elements to consider when putting together guidance on tattoos, sure to remain a trending employee relations issue for 2016.

1. Establish the motivation for your company dress code policy

First things first – employee relations practitioners and company management teams must agree the goals and motives behind the company dress code policy. Starbucks goes so far as to put their reason in writing emphasizing, “As a partner, your appearance is a reflection of the Starbucks brand and how we show up collectively is important to our customers.” The Starbucks statement is a great example of a top-level driver for the dress code policy. Without one, the component pieces that make up the dress code guidelines may be riddled with inconsistency.

Companies should consider the potential impacts of their dress code policy on employee engagement and morale, critical to the customer experience. As Kristina Anderson of Avatar Solutions explains, “Customers will likely have more trust in the quality of service if employees present a professional image. The challenge herein is creating a dress code policy that allows employees to be comfortable and look professional at the same time.”

As attitudes and the level of acceptance of body art have changed over the years, some companies are determining that a complete ban on visible tattoos is no longer a necessary part of a larger dress code policy. This evolution speaks to the importance of having a clear motive for dress code standards and frequently re-evaluating them as times change.

2. Specify clear dress code guidelines for tattoo visibility and content

PetSmart switched gears this year and now allows employees to have visible, appropriate tattoos; Peet’s Coffee & Tea does the same. Within the new Starbucks tattoo guidelines, an employee’s neck and face are off limits, but otherwise visible tattoos are now allowed as evidenced in the thumbs up graphic.

Best practice policies on tattoos must specify where or even if they can be visible as well as acceptable content. There are the obvious restrictions – bad language, nudity and offensiveness. It’s imperative to think through the implications given the vast number of places an employee can have a tattoo, like the wrist or ankle. In a summer climate, should a company’s restrictions on tattoo visibility require an employee with a wrist tattoo to wear long sleeves, long pants for an ankle tattoo? If an employee has a tattoo on the back of the neck and it is always covered by his or her hair, is (s)he compliant with a policy that prohibits visible tattoos on the neck?

An interesting wrinkle for companies concerns religious body art. Some people have tattoos that display religious images, sayings or verses, and showing these messages is very important to them. When a company prohibits visible tattoos including religious ones, there have been occasions when employees have argued that the prohibition is a form of religious harassment.

Therefore, simple, clear guidelines on the visibility and acceptable content of a tattoo should be established as part of the overall dress code policy. These rules must be put in writing and signed by each employee. To the extent that religious body art or other employee specific-situations arise, they can be managed with workplace accommodations as noted in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Policies.

3. Call-out “tatcalling” and make it a form of employee misconduct

This year, a new word was coined by Melissa Fabello, “tatcalling,” a play on the term catcalling but referring to catcalls about someone else’s tattoo. Over the course of a 40 minute period, she decided to send a tweet out each time someone commented on her tattoos. Having received 10 comments in the brief 40 minute period, she decided to describe her view and “tatcalling” experience in a blog post, My Tattoos Aren’t an Invitation for Harassment, So Please Stop ‘Tatcalling” Me.

The blog was not without controversy, but it is worth acknowledging for the simple reason that it surfaces the potential for a new form of workplace misconduct. “Tatcalling” should be clearly prohibited in the employee Code of Conduct manual and documented as a form of misconduct. It should also be the basis for a workplace investigation if an employee experiences and alleges a pattern of misconduct due to his/her tattoos.

The reality is that tattoos are no longer just a fad. In a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the number of people who said someone in their household had a tattoo doubled from 21% in 1999 to 40%. Those numbers are reason alone for companies to include tattoo guidelines in their employee relations policies. In the context of clear and thoughtful dress code rules, doing so can boost employee engagement and make for a happier workplace.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.