Body Art, Discrimination in the Workplace, and What You Can Do

I’ve hemmed and hawed on the subject of naming names, but have decided that I’ll simply say this: I used to work for a very large department store. Okay, yeah, you can probably read between the lines there. Lawsuits against this department store include such a huge variety of items that an entire website has been dedicated to tracking lawsuits against them – including those filed by employees, ranging from Sex/Race/Age Discrimination to the Wrongful Withholding of Wages.

Within 2 years of working for this store, I crawled up the ladder from being a Cashier to representing the front end as a Customer Service Manager. Obviously, my work ethic was never in question – I constantly dealt with extremely large amounts of money, and worked directly with customers and fellow employees alike. Things started going downhill when a manager noticed something absolutely shocking:

I have a tongue ring.

Horror of horrors, sin of sins, that little silver stud in my tongue started a chain reaction of nastiness that ended with my resignation.

Body Art in the Workplace

As body art – everything from tattoos to piercings – becomes more mainstream, a trend ushered in by those icons of our day, celebrities, more and more employers are becoming accepting of body art in the workplace. Part of this “acceptance” might be nothing more than necessary; a recent study performed by the Mayo Clinic found that about Ã?¼ of all college students have up to three tattoos, and more than Ã?½ of all college students wear pierced jewelry in spots other than the earlobe.

The question comes down to ability: body decorations don’t affect the reliability of an employee, so employers who value ability over appearance are starting to overlook body art. Even with that, though, nearly half of the employers surveyed in a National Association of Colleges and Employers study stated that a “nontraditional appearance” would sway their hiring decisions.

So, we come down to the fact that an employee’s ability to express themselves depends on the nature of their job.

In an effort to “conform” (and believe me, I’m trying very hard not to go on some sort of tirade about conformity and societal standards), many employees police their own appearance, carefully covering body art during work hours and wearing spacers in their piercings.

The employer I worked for was a bit more ambiguous about what was “fair wear” in the workplace. Managers at the store sported visible tattoos and were never asked to cover them. However, the first sign of a body piercing is cause for a write-up. Any “unnatural” hair color is another write-up, and employees are sent home until they “fix” their hair.

In a working world that enforces laws against discrimination for lifestyle choices like sexuality and religion, the expression of choice over how a person appears is open for discriminative action.

Corporate Cultures and Freedom of Expression

Right or wrong, tattoos and body piercings often hurt a person’s chances for employment and/or career advancement. Many managers hold lower opinions of people based on their non-ear piercings and body art, feeling that someone who exposes this decoration at the workplace “knowingly rocks the boat”.

Experts who deal with fashion in the workplace offer the following guidelines:

Women with multiple ear piercings should limit earrings to one per ear while working or interviewing.

Men with ear piercings should remove all earrings while working or interviewing.

Non-ear piercings should be removed if they’re clearly visible (nose, lip, and eyebrow piercings), or a clear acrylic spacer should be worn in the case of a tongue ring or new piercings.

All tattoos should be covered with clothing or by the hair.

It seems like a lot of hassle, and certainly doesn’t seem fair. Because of the positions I’ve held (from teaching to technology consulting), I’ve always been careful that any tattoos I get can be easily hidden by my clothing and I don’t have any overtly visible piercings – unless you decide to look around in my mouth for the very small tongue ring I wear. There are simply too many problems with showing off your body art in work situations – denied opportunities, hassle from supervisors, exclusion from special events, even being fired or not getting hired in the first place.

The one exception to this dress code is the creative industry. Entertainment, music, and the arts generally celebrates tattoos and body piercings as part of creative expression. This freedom of expression is often not only tolerated, but encouraged in creative industries.

Legalese is still a bit uneasy about the issue of body art. Most rulings by U.S. American courts have gone in favor of the employer when employees have brought charges of discrimination against them, but employers need to be clear about their dress code policy. Any code against body art needs to include a clearly defined reason for the position: safety, hygiene, or corporate image. Where things get iffy, though, is that discrimination against a person’s race or religion is illegal. Many cultural and religious codes include body art, and discrimination against it then becomes illegal as well.

Want to Make a Stand?

Until the law is clearer on discrimination when it comes to body art, there isn’t a lot that we can do in the court. There are a lot of other things we can do, though.

One of the approaches that I like comes from the website Stop Body Art Discrimination ( – they advocate boycotting companies who are actively practicing discrimination, and placing your hard-earned money with those that are body art and tattoo friendly. This website offers a full listing of companies known to discriminate based on a person’s appearance, as well as those that are piercing and tattoo friendly.

There are also a score of organizations dedicated to freedom of expression that you can get involved with. Some of the best ones include:

The Free Speech Coalition –

Pierced Lip Society –

American Civil Liberties Unionm-

Association of Professional Piercers –

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