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Company bans are fading on employee body ink

Companies seeking younger employees are relaxing their stance on visible tattoos.
by Paula Burkes Modified: August 25, 2013 at 10:00 am •  Published: August 24, 2013
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When she lost her mom five years ago, Alicia Young wanted to have a remembrance sunflower tattooed on her wrist, but instead had the image inked on her hipbone.

A registered sales assistant for Wells Fargo, Young, 50, of Midwest City feared a more visible tattoo would be seen at work, where her clients might judge her.

Similarly, George Campbell, 63, of south Oklahoma City, who retired a year ago as a facilities and land manager for Oklahoma Natural Gas, kept his tattoos hidden. His body art runs from his mid-thighs to his neck and from his shoulders to a few inches below his elbows, Campbell said.

Though Campbell and Young followed historical business advice to keep their tattoos covered by traditional business attire, corporate policies and protocols are fading with today's proliferation of body ink, observers say. Just a few months ago, one large Oklahoma City-based retailer dropped its ban on visible tattoos for the some 600 employees who work at its corporate office.

Firms ease policies

Employers — even large corporations that are traditionally conservative with dress codes — are relaxing their policies to attract younger workers, said Gayla Sherry, an Oklahoma City human resources professional who writes employee handbooks for companies of all sizes.

Elaine Turner, an employment attorney with Hall Estill, agrees. “Employers still can, and should, have dress code policies,” Turner said. But federal and state law in Oklahoma prevents any size employer from discriminating against employees, and candidates, on the basis of seriously-held religious beliefs, she said.

Some religious beliefs, Turner said, involve tattoos and piercing. One Egyptian faith requires a certain tattoo around the wrist, and it's considered a sin to cover it up, she said.

“Employers must accommodate such seriously held beliefs, unless it's an undue hardship to your business,” Turner said.

Those who choose to ban visible tattoos must apply that ban consistently to everyone, regardless of gender, or to everyone in a certain group, Turner said, and any restrictions should be appropriate for business reasons. For example, banks may ban visible tattoos for tellers and others who interact with the public, but allow them for mailroom employees and others, she said.

Dual policies

One large Oklahoma City retailer still bans visible tattoos for employees who work at its stores, but corporate employees are allowed to show tattoos if they're conservative and inconspicuous, its human relations manager said. “Full sleeves of tattoos aren't allowed, and tattoos can't be vulgar or offensive,” said the HR professional, who herself has large flowers tattooed on one shoulder, which partially show when she wears sleeveless tops.

Meanwhile, other employees were wearing wide bracelets, Band-Aids and gloves to hide butterflies or other small tattoos they had on their wrists or hands, she said. “It looked worse than if they were visible,” she said.

Over the last year alone, Sherry said she's seen handbook policies changed from “business attire” to “business casual” and from banning tattoos to accepting tattoos that are in good taste. “Today's perception is tattoos are the norm rather than the exception,” she said.

Indeed, 21 percent of all U.S. adults have tattoos, according to an online poll conducted by Harris Interactive last year. Surveyors found 38 percent of 30-somethings have them, and 27 percent of those 40 to 49.

Professionals inking up

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by Paula Burkes
Reporter
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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The view on tattoos

People with tattoos say they make them feel more sexy (30 percent), rebellious (25 percent), attractive or strong (21 percent) and spiritual (16). Meanwhile, those without view people with tattoos as less attractive (45 percent), less sexy (39 percent), less intelligent (27 percent) and less spiritual (25 percent). Half say tattooed people are more rebellious.

SOURCE: Harris Poll of 2,016 adults surveyed online between Jan. 16-23, 2012.

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