Dress Codes and Today's Culture

You would have to be blind to miss the changes in young people's piercing and tattoo trends. Every year the body parts that can be pierced, pricked, lanced and tattooed are increasing. You can see people with everything from traditional earlobes pierced to belly buttons, tongues, noses, lips, eyebrows and cheeks. And tattoos can show up just about any place on the body -- not all of them so easy to conceal.

Some young people feel that if they have these areas pierced or tattooed they should show them off. These young people are graduating college and either have or will be showing up on you business doorstep looking for jobs. It is important that the dress code section of your employee handbook has clear policies about piercings and tattoos, or "body art" as it's popularly known.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not discriminate or hinder a person’s race, color, religion, age, national origin or gender. Here are some guidelines to help you avoid trouble:

Make sure your employee handbook policy gives consideration for religious accommodation.

Example: A large company lost a court case when sued by a Muslim employee who was not allowed to wear a headscarf during the holy month of Ramadan. The court found that this was a bona fide religious belief and that the company had not demonstrated efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation with the employee.

Example: A large corporation asked an employee to remove her facial piercing that violated the dress code policy in their employee handbook. The corporation suggested accommodations that the employee rejected. The employee claimed that she belonged to the "church of piercing" and this was a religious accommodation. The courts ruled that the church did not meet a bona fide religion. The corporation was not held liable.

Make sure your employee handbook policy is based on reasonable business or safety considerations.

Example: A company asked three telephone line technicians to remove their facial jewelry. The company claimed it was a "safety-based" employee handbook policy due to working next to electric lines. The employees filed a grievance with OSHA because all jewelry was not prohibited, only their facial jewelry. The claim was settled when the company agreed to ban all jewelry in their employee handbook dress code policy.

Make sure your employee handbook policy is specific about what is and isn't permitted. If you do allow piercings, be specific if there are some places you don't want pierced. You must also be specific if you do not want certain types of tattoos, for instance, sexual explicit tattoos or those containing profanity.

Example: An employee working for a company had blue hair, a pierced eyebrow and a nose ring. When the employee appeared one day with a new piercing in the tongue, the supervisor stated a dislike for tongue piercings and asked the employee to remove it. When the employee refused, she was fired and subsequently sued the company. Because of a lack of specific language in the dress code policy, a judge ordered that the employee's job be reinstated with full back pay and tongue piercing intact.

Make sure your employee handbook policy matches your corporate culture and public image. Businesses that are conservative or cater to certain age groups may have strict dress code policies. Conversely, companies that aim to attract creative, artistic, or trendy clientele may be less stringent. As an owner of a construction company, it's up to you to decide how your employees look and how they represent your business to clients and customers.

Wendy Christie is president of EmployeeHandbookNow.com Inc., specializing in employee handbooks customized by state law, federal regulations and industry. EmployeeHandbookNow.com offers four dress code policy options in your customized employee handbook, or if one of these options doesn't fit your needs you can a use an hour of free consulting services for a customized policy.