Does body art in the workplace matter?

The time has come when businesses need to move past the archaic assumption that having a tattoo or a piercing makes a person an inadequate worker. 

Technically, it’s not illegal for a potential employer to refuse to hire someone because they have visible tattoos and piercings. It’s considered a right of the employer to be selective with his or her employment. And with the current economic climate, the fact is that employers have more potential employees than ever to choose from.

Courts have ruled in favor of corporations that have fired a person because he or she refused to remove or cover a tattoo or piercing for religious reasons. About ten years ago, in Cloutier v. Costco Wholesale, a district court upheld Costco’s right to fire a woman for refusing to cover or remove her nose ring, which she claimed to be an expression of her faith.

But we all know that times are changing. Tattoos have moved away from simply advertising gang membership. Now, people claim their tattoos have meaning – dedications to lost loved ones, expressions of political views, symbols of love for partners, remembering difficult times in life to keep moving forward. In this way, tattoos show depth of character.

That’s not to say every tattoo necessarily means something.  Some people get tattoos because they think they look cool, because they want to be perceived a certain way, or because they are making a fashion statement.  A good chunk of tattoos in the world are simply harmless. Another portion of tattoos simply remain from “other lives” people have long left behind, unable to be removed.

It’s simply a matter of expression, and we all have the right to express ourselves however we please. It doesn’t mean that a person is less hardworking.

Denying someone employment for a tattoo is starting to parallel refusing to hire someone because they wear a cross or the Star of David around his or her neck. Granted, extent of the protected expression as tattoos and piercings would be reasonably restricted in line with unprotected First Amendment speech.

Employers should move away from worrying about what a person looks like and seriously evaluate work ethic. A person with a tattoo is no more likely to slack off than anyone else.

By discouraging tattoos in the workplace, employers take measures to stifle creativity. And this doesn’t just happen in the workplace. For decades, people have been debating whether or not schools should require uniforms versus letting students express themselves. Dress codes in high schools around the country limit anything from political t-shirts to “unnaturally colored” hair.

What purpose does this really serve? Surely, every school has a reason, usually along the lines of “inappropriateness” and every business stresses “professionalism.” I say it’s time we redefine these concepts, and let the creativity be the overriding factor in evaluating people for their value in the workplace.