March 13, 2018

Hey, That is an Interesting Tattoo You Have There

By Paul Bieber

Have you ever said that to a current employee? Probably. Tattoos are a growing trend in our country. Mostly among our younger generation, but even old-timers are joining the crowd. So what? It is none of my business what my employees have for artwork on their bodies. Great sentiment here, but totally wrong in my world. Read on.

An employee in your office, Jane, your customer service office, has an ethnic slur on her arm. It is very small, but still readable from two feet away, just where a customer stands. Are you allowed to move Jane to a new position or ask her to wear a long-sleeved garment every day at work? Joe, delivery driver, has his entire left arm covered with artwork and slogans supporting his favorite baseball team. Can you make Joe wear a long-sleeved shirt every day as he visits your customer’s shipping docks? How about Bill, who works in your facility putting windows together? Can Bill have tattoos on his face that look like tears coming from his eyes?

There are answers to the above questions: YES and NO. It all starts with your employee handbook and your section on tattoos. Yep, it needs to be there. If your handbook says that people with customer contact cannot show any racial, ethnic, sexual or political tattoos, then you can ask Jane to cover her tattoo. You shouldn’t ask Bill to cover his tattooed tears while working in the plant. But, why would you hassle Jane and not Bill? What about Joe on the truck? Is he meeting with customers at their receiving door? If you don’t ask Joe to cover up, Jane can now file a discrimination complaint against you, and would have a good chance of winning it.

Okay, enough of the intro here. You get the story. It all comes down to your employee manual and specifically your section on tattoos in the workplaceThe most common-written policy simply states that employees who have regular customer contact positions should not have tattoos that can be seen by customers. No mention of religion, ethnicity or anything else. You should not make yourself the arbiter of what is allowed. In the above scenarios Jane can be asked to wear long sleeves, Joe can’t as he is only dealing with the receiving personnel at your customer’s back door and Bill is totally exempted from your policy. 

Here are the rules you have to follow. Be consistent in your policy. Don’t overlook one person with something that you would not allow on another. Good labor is hard to find today and you don’t want to lose a good employee over this policy, so should you exempt current employees and only make this a rule for new employees? Please don’t. You may get in trouble with the labor department in your state, and it will sow discontent with your employees.

Consult with your lawyer about the laws in your state before finalizing this program. It is easier to cover all tattoos on customer contact personnel than try to decide which ones are Okay. And, if you have tattoos yourself, make sure they are covered when you are with customers.