[In the Workplace] Tattoo Taboo

Features - Employee Management

So, what do you think about ‘ink’? And what should you do if you want employees to keep their body art under wraps? PCT talks tattoos.

October 23, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

A guy sits down for a technician job opening at your firm and you can’t take your eyes off of his neck and hands. He’s got ink — tattoos in places that can’t be covered by your company’s long-sleeved uniform. Your first thought: What will the old people think?! (You know, the sweet woman who has been buying your services for the last 30 years...) Not to mention commercial clients — will this go over at their headquarters? You’re also wondering: Will I get in trouble if I ask my technician to cover that tat?

Mike Masterson, president at ISOTECH Pest Management in Covina, Calif., has been on the employer side of this scenario. He has interviewed candidates with extensive body art that extends from a “sleeve” of tattoos onto the hand. Usually, he doesn’t have to say a word. “They might say, ‘If I can save up enough money, I can get rid of these,’” he says. Or, they offer to hide the tattoos “this far.” “I’ll wear gloves,” they offer.

Masterson has no problem with that. His formal dress code policy includes a section on body art (and piercings). His commercial client base expects utmost professionalism. “I can’t stop employees from getting tattoos — it’s their choice, but [the body art] can’t be exposed,” he says.

There’s a “face” to your business — an image. And if ink isn’t part of that, then an employer has a right to require that tattoos remain covered. The key is to draft a fair policy (no discrimination based on gender, religion, etc.), and to apply the policy properly.

“Tattoos are a topic that are heavily debated, and it is still customary in the pest control industry for companies to prohibit employees from having visible body art,” says Jean Seawright of Seawright & Associates, a human resources practice in Winter Park, Fla.

In fact, tattoos are really quite common. A Pew Research Study indicates that 36 percent of 18- to 25-year olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds have at least one tattoo. And as Baby Boomers continue retiring, Seawright says that 50 percent of the workforce will be comprised of Generation Y — the Millenials with birthdates from the 1980s to 2000s. “When the majority of the workers are younger, (tattoos become) more acceptable,” Seawright says. “So, I anticipate we’ll see a shift in that direction and more employers will relax their ‘no visible tattoos’ policies.”

Going Under Cover. “Personally, I think of bumper stickers and tattoos the same way,” says Terry Clark, president of Clark Pest Control based in Lodi, Calif. His company emphasizes a neat appearance in all respects, from the truck to an employee’s haircut and shaven face. Ponytails are allowed; bumper stickers are not, football bumper stickers especially — an “outward sign of preference” that could certainly offend.

“We try to maintain a clean appearance of both vehicles and employees without outward signs of any preference so as not to offend,” Clark says. Is it tougher for a salesperson to close a deal if he or she is bearing visible tattoos? That’s debatable. “Some employees might find it harder to make sales to some people if tattoos are showing, but we don’t stop them from having them,” Clark says.

Clark, personally, doesn’t have a problem with tattoos, adding that one of the company’s most beloved technicians who retired last year has military tattoos covering both arms that he got while serving in Vietnam. “But with his sleeves buttoned up, you would not know,” Clark says.

There isn’t a formal tattoo policy at Clark Pest Control. “Our branch managers hire the people they feel would be best for the job,” Clark says. And since the company requires that technicians wear long-sleeved shirts, the tattoo “issue” is only a real problem if the ink is front and center — “facial tattoos, I guess,” Clark says. But he has never run into that in his business. “Obviously, gang or prison tattoos would be a problem, but the background check weeds out those folks early in the process, generally.”

General hygiene policies and dress codes can serve the purpose of sending that neat-and-clean message to employees and prospective workers without spelling out “no tattoos” in ink. On the other hand, if a company takes a strong stand against visible body art, a clause in the employee handbook better state this clearly.

“A high standard of personal hygiene should be followed because technicians have personal contact with customers several times a day,” says Critter Control’s Kevin Clark, referencing cleanliness (including showering before work). Critter Control’s hygiene policy addresses hair (short, clean and combed, off the collar), facial hair (clean shaven preferred or neatly trimmed facial hair). “The Critter Control franchises set specific office guidelines on hair and shaving criteria,” Kevin Clark says. Tattoo policies are up to individual offices, as well. And to Kevin Clark’s knowledge, none of the franchises have run into any problems with body art that have warranted drafting a specific policy.

An informal “cover the ink” rule also applies at Palmetto Exterminators in Charleston, S.C., where Bert Snyder is vice president. “Most of our 100-plus employees do not have any or have tattoos in locations that are discreet and easily covered by our standard uniform,” Snyder says, adding that a few employees voluntarily wear long sleeves to cover their body art. “They understand that we have no control over how a customer may react to a visible tattoo, so they take it upon themselves to do what is best for the company’s image without my asking.”

Snyder says he won’t put a formal tattoo policy in place unless he runs into a big problem — and he personally feels that what people want on their bodies is up to them. “I believe most of my customers feel the same way about the issue.”

Accepting Self-Expression.
But what does the business world think of tattoos, really? Are we loosening up as the workforce grows younger and more employees are likely to have ink? Maybe not, according to a Salary.com survey of 2,675 people. Seventy-six percent of respondents felt tattoos and piercings hurt an applicant’s chances of being hired during a job interview. And more than one-third — 39 percent of those surveyed — say they believe employees with tattoos and piercings reflect poorly on their employers.

Masterson says he has had employees with tattoos on their necks and hands who assure him they are saving money to remove the tattoos. They’ll wear gloves in the interim or do their best to cover the tattoos. (He does not require they remove the tattoos — the workers offer.)

But Masterson says he sees tattoos in professional environments all the time these days, especially in California where his business is based. “I was at a medical facility and the gentleman who is the maintenance manager had so many tattoos you couldn’t see his arms,” Masterson says. “Here is a gentleman who is running a huge medical facility and the company evidently doesn’t mind that he has all of these tattoos. But you have to remember, this is accepted as a norm in California.”

How does the pest control industry rank in terms of acceptance of tattoos? “When I think of the industry meetings I attend, I would say that it is a very strong minority of people who have visible tattoos,” says Andy Architect, executive director, National Pest Management Association’s QualityPro program.

And, many companies’ dress code policies set a precedent for appearance and professionalism — tattoos are sort of a gray area, Architect says. More companies have a no-smoking policy as opposed to a formal tattoo policy, he says.

But the fact is, technicians are entering homes and businesses, and customers’ impressions matter. Customers come in all ages and with varying opinions of self expression like tattoos.

Seawright says she has dealt with business owners who have fielded customer complaints about tattoos and want to know how to handle those situations. Or, the company does not allow visible tattoos and an employee refuses to cover his or her body art. “Tattoos are the most common dress-code related issue,” she says.

In one case, an employee threatened to sue his employer after he refused to conceal a visible tattoo (there was a company policy requiring that body art be covered). “The company applied the policy evenly among all the different groups of employees, there was no law prohibiting them from requiring that tattoos be covered, and the employee who was threatening the lawsuit did not have any religious ground or basis for wearing the tattoo,” Seawright says. “So, for that employer, there was not any risk and nothing ever did come of it (the threatened lawsuit).”

Get it in Ink. If you’re going to require employees to cover their body art, be smart about the way you craft your policy. First, understand Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which is the federal law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on religions and other protected classes. “Under this law, an employer has to accommodate the religious needs of employees unless it creates an undue hardship,” Seawright says.

For example, Seawright shares a case from 2005 where the employee was of Egyptian faith and had a tattoo around his wrist that contained a verse from Egyptian scripture. It symbolized dedication to his belief and, according to his religious beliefs, it was a sin to conceal it. The employer wanted the tattoo to be covered and was sued. The case settled for $150,000.

Another important point when enacting a tattoo policy: Be sure you apply it fairly across all groups of employees. You can prohibit employees from having visible body art. And it is customary in the pest control industry to require employees to keep body art covered, Seawright says. And if you prohibit visible tattoos across the board, be careful with exceptions. “For example, you should not require a male technician with a big tattoo on his arm to cover his body art, but not a female technician with a visible tattoo,” she says. “This could result in inadvertent discrimination.”

And, if you decide to implement a policy and there are employees on board who have visible tattoos, you must decide whether you will “grandfather in” these employees and allow their tattoos, or require that they abide by the new policy.

What language might you include in an employee manual? Here’s a primer from Seawright: Visible and offensive tattoos, clothing and piercings are not permitted. “People can wear T-shirts that are just as offensive as a tattoo,” she points out.


The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached at khampshire@giemedia.com.