Diane Stafford: Employers can reject tattoos, piercings, but should they?

Tattoos and body piercings increasingly are in the mainsteam, even among white-collar professionals. But while they don’t rate a second glance in some venues, they’re still not accepted in others.

It surprises some younger workers in particular to know that employers generally are free to discriminate against them if they have visible tattoos, studs or safety pins as skin art.

Body art is a freedom-of-expression right, but courts consistently have said that right may stop at an employer’s door. Unless you can show evidence of a specific religious or class protection, an employer can refuse to hire you, can demand you cover up or remove the decoration as a condition of employment, or can fire you for failing to follow the workplace’s appearance code.

Case law generally agrees that employers can set the appearance standards that they want for their employees. Things that are deemed to be “mutable characteristics” generally can be dictated in workplaces.

But a new study by two professors in the College of Business at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi warns employers against being too strident about banning body art, especially if a job candidate or employee is otherwise worth having.

“Some of today’s best candidates may have modifications that you consider undesirable,” wrote professors Brian Elzweig and Donna Peeples. “Who knows, as these people grow and mature in their carers, the modifications may suddenly disappear. After all, they have to be competitive in their market.”

The authors note that visible tattoos and piercings still are rare in corporate hierarchies. Their study indicated that those who sport body art may be “subliminally” discriminated against in hiring or promotions because they don’t fit bosses’ images for the organization, profession or position.

That may change as younger workers — up to half of whom may have some kind of body art — ascend the career ladder. All of the millennial generation, the group that turned the tide on body art acceptance, is now of working age.

The professors suggest that organizations take a good look at their dress codes and policies to make sure they have valid reasons for banning “mutable characteristics.” Judges or juries might not accept as valid the argument that “our customers don’t like it.” Employers may be asked to provide data to prove that claim.

Employers also are advised to make sure their policies are gender neutral to avoid sex discrimination charges. If a policy allows piercings in ear lobes, it should apply to women and men. Ditto if a policy bans purple hair or any other mutable trait.

Employers should assess carefully whether such a ban is appropriate or makes good business sense. Surveys indicate that public acceptance is growing, largely as tattoos and piercings proliferate among younger generations born after the baby boom — the group that will soon rule the workplace.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to Follow her online at and @kcstarstafford.