HR Hot Topic: Top 10 tips for tats and piercings in the dental practice

When it comes to employees' self-expresion, set your policies now to avoid trouble later.

A recent Harris International Poll revealed that 21% of adults in the United States have tattoos. That figure includes 38% of 30-somethings and 27% of 40-49-year-olds. Piercings (other than earrings) are also becoming much more commonplace as 25% of 30-somethings have a piercing somewhere other than their earlobes according to the Pew Research Center.

As the world is changing and body art and jewelry is becoming more prevalent, what can the more conservative and traditional employer do about it?

To start, take a step back and consider very carefully just what policies you want to put in place.

Are you okay with a moderate butterfly or flower tattoo? How about symbols or text? Eyebrow or nose rings versus lip or tongue piercings? Are there specific industry or culture considerations in play that you need to address? Is there a safety issue to be considered? Could a piercing interfere with equipment and potentially harm to an employee? Safety trumps most other reasons or requests. Be sure to document the reasoning behind your decisions.

Different positions within a company can have different requirements based on specific job duties.

A recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) article by Joanne Deschenaux includes this legal opinion:

“Generally speaking, an employer has leeway over what kind of policies to set regarding tattoos and piercings,” said Marc Scheiner, an employment lawyer at the Duane Morris firm’s Philadelphia office. “When the reasons behind [appearance] codes are ‘company image,’ those are the grayest areas.” Decisions will usually turn on the facts of the specific case, but Scheiner said courts want to see both sides be flexible. “The employee has to work with the employer to find reasonable accommodations,” he explained.

Here is the leading legal advice being offered through the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM):

  • Be very clear and have your policy in writing.

  • Do away with all across-the-board bans as religious accommodations and discrimination issues may come into play.

  • Don’t be too restrictive or you risk missing out on talented candidates.

  • Be specific but allow for some discretion. You can say no visible tattoos or only small tattoos, but don’t get into stating acceptable dimensions or styles.

  • Be aware that some religions prohibit the covering up of religious tattoos so you’ll need to be careful in applying a “no visible tattoos” policy.

  • Apply your policy consistently. You can’t randomly allow one person to have a nose ring or tattoo and not another unless religious accommodations are being considered. Your position will be hard to defend if it’s applied arbitrarily.

  • Offensive images can be banned. However, whether on tattoos, jewelry, clothing, pictures, or email, they must all be dealt with in the same way to prevent creating harassment claims or a hostile work environment. Offensive is offensive in all forms.

  • Sometimes the cover-ups attract more negative attention than the original body art. Are Band-Aids acceptable, or do you prefer opaque makeup, clothing, or bracelets?

  • Tattoos and piercings are only two issues that must be clearly defined in a solid appearance policy from your Policy & Procedures manual. Now is a great time to address your appearance policy and how it also deals with perfume, body odor, cleanliness, cleavage, and provocative dress.

  • Given that most hiring managers are still part of the older GenX or Baby Boomer generation, prejudice toward body art is still a reality to be dealt with. Be sure to train your managers on the law.