What can a business owner do if an applicant alters his or her physical appearance for an interview, hiding tattoos, piercings and other non-traditional body art? Can the organization subsequently fire candidates who then come to work without disguising their body modifications?
With the Millennial generation (and many workers from other eras) widely adopting non-traditional body adornments, this issue will become increasingly relevant. According to a February 2016 Harris Poll, 47 percent of Millennials and 36 percent of Gen X respondents have at least one “tat.”
In many industries, corporate cultures and levels of acceptance have not kept up with this trend. Additionally, many decision makers may never have considered adding body modifications to their dress code policies. Moving forward, most will need to address this issue.
Whether or not employers can take action against an employee depends on the reason for the modification. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers with 15 or more employees “must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.” Many states extend similar anti-discriminatory protections to employees of businesses with fewer than 15 workers.
Is “Covering Up” Lying?
Returning to our original question, what happens if job candidates cover their tattoos with makeup for an interview, or dye their brown hair green afterward, then show up in “full color” on Day One? In our view, intentionally hiding a distinctive personal characteristic that is not protected by Title VII is no different than claiming a skillset that the candidate doesn’t possess. It is disingenuous at best. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons why someone might cover a tattoo or change their hair color that may not represent an intentional falsehood.
To ensure applicants are informed about workplace expectations, hiring managers should communicate, during the candidate evaluation phase, company policies regarding body art and other non-traditional body modifications. Additionally, organizations should reconfirm policies for dress and appearance in a formal, written document that all new hires sign as a condition of employment. This approach puts new hires on notice that they will need to cover up any non-protected body modifications and face possible dismissal if they do not. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently published a helpful article on this topic that you might find valuable in your own efforts.