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The complicated situation of tattoos in the workplace (by Harry Law)


Tattoos are a form of expression that convey the individuality of their owners. They can represent a multitude of things, like a tie to a family member, a favorite quote with a special meaning, or even a favorite cartoon character. Tattoos also can carry great cultural and/or religious significance. Every tattoo is unique and says something about the individual person who wears it. The problem that many companies face is when a tattoo is considered appropriate and when it should be covered. 

Employees are after all the faces of a company, so the tattoos on their bodies are connected to and represent that company as well. Some workplaces have instituted rules and regulations when it comes to their employees’ tattoos, but there can be negative consequences when a company goes too far in telling their employees what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

The Disney Company has recently changed its policy on tattoos. Disney’s goal is to create a magical, fantasy experience for their guests and thus have maintained very strict rules for their cast members’ appearances. A change in their “Disney Look” guidebook has recently been made so that now, cast members are allowed to have tattoos up to a size that can be covered by their own extended hands. Besides, tattoos cannot have offensive material, nudity, foul language, etc. This has a major impact on HR practices concerning tattoos as Disney was previously one of the strictest companies. Such a change in Disney's rulebook was made to turn the company into a more inclusive place for its employees, as freedom of expression and acceptance of all have become a large and pressing issue in the last few years.

With the growing expectation of companies and employers to accept diversity, problems with tattoos have begun to come under fire and have even been the subject of some legal actions. There are state and federal laws that protect employees from being discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, national origin, and other protected areas. This means it could be illegal to fire someone with a tattoo that is connected to one of the above categories. Many people have tattoos relating to their religion or culture. 

Native Hawaiians, for example, will get tattoos because it is based deep within their culture and heritage. Unfortunately, these tattoos often fall into a gray area and are not always deemed as being of cultural or religious significance. Many Hawaiians who receive their tattoos will strategically get them in an area that can easily be covered. This is because they are still wrongfully discriminated against and/or face a negative stigma against what their ancestors have been practicing for thousands of years. Interestingly, Hawaiian Airlines requires all employees who have direct customer interaction to not have any tattoos visible. They do sometimes make exceptions for culturally Hawaiian tattoos, but it is not an issue that is taken lightly. Hawaiian Airlines executives believe that not displaying tattoos gives more of a professional appearance.

An estimated one-third of companies see no problem with their employees having visible tattoos. In a study done on nearly 200 restaurant managers in South Carolina, it was found that these managers preferred to hire servers without any visible tattoos. This has been an issue in the service industry especially because of the high amount of contact and interaction employees have with guests. Many managers and companies believe that visible tattoos are less professional-looking and are less preferable for customers to see. When employers are hiring, they are able to dismiss someone because of tattoos unless it can be proven that the tattoo is of religious or cultural importance. Even here, the rules for discriminating against these types of tattoos are unclear.

In an era where diversity and self-love have become increasingly important in our society, businesses are having a difficult time balancing what they think is right, what is best for their employees, and what is legal. There are still no laws that prevent discrimination against tattoos, but it has become a growing issue in human resources as more people push to not have to hide what has become a part of their own bodies. An increasing number of people have gotten tattoos, with an approximate 30% of Americans having at least one. With tattoo-related legal issues on the rise, HR departments must make a decision on where they stand with their employees showing their tattoos.

How does an employer differentiate from what is and isn’t an appropriate tattoo for the workplace?

Should a company be able to enforce what its employees have on their bodies?

When is a tattoo considered to be of cultural or religious importance? What qualities must it have?

About The Author

Harry Law is currently a junior at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. His major is Hospitality Management, and he is a student at the Collins College of Hospitality Management. He is taking an emphasis on his degree in Lodging Operations and would like to pursue a career at a hotel/resort. He recently was accepted into the Disney College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, and will be working on the program full time for six months, beginning in January of 2022. He is excited about the opportunities it will bring him, as he will receive a vast amount of new knowledge and experience in the service industry.

Bibliography

Brallier, S., and K. Maguire. “Visible Tattoos and Employment in the Restaurant Service Industry: Semantic Scholar.” Semantic Scholar, 2011, https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Visible-Tattoos-and-Employment-in-the-Restaurant-Brallier-Maguire/fee6f7f4abd0309334cd76450598aed7cbe2b265.

“Tattoos in the Workplace: What Employers Care About.” ASVAB Career Exploration Program, https://www.asvabprogram.com/media-center-article/99.

Teramae, Lana, et al. “Tattoos in the Workplace Are an Evolving Issue in Hawai'i.” Hawaii Business Magazine, 15 Oct. 2021, https://www.hawaiibusiness.com/tattoos-workplace-evolving-policies-human-resources-hawaii/.

Wilkie, Dana. “What Are an Applicant's Tattoos Telling Potential Employers?” SHRM, 16 Aug. 2019,         https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee- relations/pages/tattoos-at-work.aspx.

Picture source: https://www.insightsforprofessionals.com/getmedia/1b6ecd50-fe9c-460b-bc36-038a6252b2d5/tattoos-in-the-workplace.jpg?maxsidesize=1200&resizemode=force

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