Body art display at work: yes or no?

Tattoos at workplace

By Danielle S. Urban, additional reporting Fran Metcalf

The increasing popularity of body art is providing challenges for employers in every industry and profession.

A recent US poll reported that 36 per cent of 18-25-year-olds and 40 per cent of 26-40-year-olds have at least one tattoo.

In those same age groups, 30 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively, have a piercing somewhere other than their ears. The same survey found that, even in the 40-60 years age group, more than 10 per cent had tattoos or piercings in places other than their ears. University of Queensland anthropologist Dr Mair Underwood says there’s no recent research on the prevalence of body art in Australia but the figures are likely to be similar to those in the US.

"The National Drug Strategy household survey in 1998 found about 10 per cent of the total population in Australia had tattoos and that was more than 10 years ago," Underwood says.

"That would be really conservative by today’s standards and it’s not just young people who have them either.

"Tattooists estimate one-third of their clientele is over 50 years of age these days."

Body art has gone mainstream.

Some employers, particularly in traditionally creative fields, encourage employee displays of body art as a form of self-expression, but many others worry that their employees’ visible body piercings and tattoos may be off-putting or even offensive to customers, investors and the public at large.

"It’s understandable certain businesses want to present a certain image, and tattoos are still associated with deviancy, criminality and being on the periphery of society," says Underwood, who is making a documentary on people with body art.

Hays specialist recruitment Queensland director Darren Buchanan says the legal, accounting and professional services industries are "sensitive” to tattoos and piercings.

"We don’t often get clients request us to find someone without a tattoo but they do come back to us and say they weren’t impressed with a candidate who had one," he says.

"Even blue-collar industries may want workers to cover them up because they might be working on a conservative site like a hotel. Culturally, body art has become more acceptable but, for the business community, it is less so."

Many employers have responded by implementing dress and grooming policies seeking to limit or prohibit employees’ open display of tattoos and piercings while at work.

Those with too-stringent grooming and dress code requirements risk driving off talented employees and hurting employee morale.

At the same time, an employer, such as a hospital, may have legitimate concerns that an employee’s mode of self-expression will alienate or offend patients or patients’ families.

But not all positions require traditional business dress and involve interactions with customers or the public.

Strict grooming and dress policies may be therefore unnecessary – and perhaps demoralising – to a growing segment of employees.

Even employers who permit piercings or tattoos may find it necessary to set some limits.

For example, if you permit the display of tattoos, you may prohibit the display of sexually graphic, violent or otherwise offensive tattoos, or may require that employees limit the number of visible tattoos.

Buchanan says first impressions count and he advises job candidates to cover up tattoos and remove piercings for interviews.

He also advises job seekers to research the grooming and uniform policies of their potential employers. Despite the current popularity of tattoos and piercings, the director of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum, Dr Diana Young, predicts the fad for body art will pass.

"I think the fashion for tattoos will change and move away from the full body public tattoo to more removable body art," she says.

In the meantime, employers should ensure any grooming or presentation policies are clearly stated in writing and readily available to all employees.

Westside BMW says no

Westside BMW staff who have visible tattoos are required to cover them during work hours.

General manager of the prestige car dealership Antoinette Yerbury introduced the uniform policy five years ago when the popularity of body art began to soar.

"Tattoos are viewed as a personal statement and to ensure all staff present a professional image reflective of our brand, we ask that should you have a tattoo that is positioned in a visible part of your body (e.g. arms/legs) it should be suitably covered during work hours and whilst wearing our uniform," the policy states.

Yerbury says BMW is a prestige, luxury brand which requires a high level of service and presentation and the company expects all staff to reflect those values. "Body art, from a customer point of view, can hold some negative attributes," Yerbury says. "While some customers appreciate body art as creativity, others frown upon it and ultimately don’t want to do business."

The company’s policy also requires women to wear simple jewellery reflecting the "’corporate image" and for men to limit piercings to one earring per ear with a plain stud.

Flamingo Cafe says yes

Christina Hatzipetrou (pictured) says her colourful tattoos match her bubbly personality.

"My whole upper body is tattooed," she says. "Some people look at you funny – I do have people who are quite conservative who look at me twice.

"They’re intrigued and a bit shocked. Sometimes they ask me questions about them or want to know about me but there’s never a problem if you’re doing your job properly."

Hatzipetrou owns her own business, the Flamingo Cafe in Fortitude Valley, and says she applies the same rules to job candidates, whether they sport body art or not.

"Obviously, I have no issue with it as long as they are clean and presentable and there’s no bad attitude going with it," she says.

"That also goes for people who are not tattooed or pierced as well."

Hatzipetrou got her first tattoo 12 years ago, before it was as fashionable as today.

"People do look at you differently and they do pass judgment straight away," she says.

"But you get used to that."

Danielle S. Urban is an attorney at Fisher and Phillips Lawyers. Visit

Originally published in Workforce Week Management Online.

Article from The Courier Mail, May, 2010. Source: Workforce Week Management Online.

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