What Are Dress & Grooming Policies Doing to Your Talent Pool?

HR professionals need to ask: does a person's appearance ALWAYS affect how they would do their job? (Photo by istockphoto.com)

What’s your policy on tattoos in the workplace?

If you’re like a lot of places, it probably depends on what industry you’re in and if you serve customers directly or not. Most people who have tied their shoes and jogged over to Corporate America have done so with the understanding that if they have tattoos, they should be hidden in easily concealable places. The stigma of getting a tattoo and being a CEO just doesn’t play in many corporate board rooms still.

For some reason though, people keep getting inked. And pierced. And some of them wear flip flops, scummy jeans, and t-shirts with maybe some slightly off-color phrases. Quite possibly it’s a HR nightmare (or maybe just a HR headache), but it could impact other employees or customers. Or maybe you might think that simply getting these things done (or wearing whatever “that” is) gives a company reason enough not to hire a person.

But what if you live in Miami, FL, Portland, OR, or Richmond, VA? These cities made it into the top ten most tattooed cities in the country and those folks with ink on them might have some of the talent you are looking for.

A matter of appearance

I started my post college career at a place that had very conservative standards for dress and grooming. We’re talking about no piercings, no tattoos, no long hair for guys and make sure you got your shirt and tie too.

And being that we were located in one of these most inked cities in the country (and the job wasn’t terribly attractive anyway), it made it very difficult to recruit. I remember bringing in a person with a tattoo on his hand and neck, and I had to tell him we wouldn’t even waste our time with an interview.

I get the argument: some companies want to express their culture through appearance. They want to put forward the least offensive, most consistent image possible.

Sometimes though, there can be conflict.

Costco and The Church of Body Modification

When Costco was attempting to tighten up their dress and grooming policies, they required that cashiers may not wear facial jewelry other than earrings. A cashier refused to do so based on her membership in the Church of Body Modification and she was subsequently fired. After a long legal battle, Costco won out and while it was mainly a case surrounding religious expression in the workplace, it also touched upon dress codes in general:

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Recognizing that, “Costco is far from unique in adopting personal appearance standards to promote and protect its image,” the Court observed that “[c]ourts have long recognized the importance of personal appearance regulations, even in the face of Title VII challenges.” Such codes, it added, “which are designed to appeal to customer preference or promote a professional public image,” have been upheld. The Court affirmed the dismissal of the state claim as well, in the absence of state decisions departing from the Title VII analysis.

So while they were correct, it was also an expensive legal battle.

And while I can find no other mention of her work performance, I have to assume that a four-year employee of the company was probably doing something right and that this regulation impacted more than just an individual (and possibly hundreds or even thousands of prospective employees). The impact of a simple dress or appearance code can cause ripples down the line.

What counts?

Ultimately, you have one question to ask yourself if you’re the policy-maker in an organization: if the most qualified, perfect employee walked into your interview with a nose ring and visible tattoos, would you reject them out of hand?

It has to be very culturally important to your organization if you’re willing to lose on talent based on appearance (and not ability alone).

And certainly if you’re hiring in Las Vegas or Austin, you might be waiting a little longer for the perfect (but un-inked) person to join your organization.

Your turn: Do you allow tattoos, piercings, flip flops, etc… at your place of business? Why have you chosen the policy you implemented? Feel free to leave a comment below or join the discussion on our LinkedIn group.

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3 Comments on “What Are Dress & Grooming Policies Doing to Your Talent Pool?

  1. I worked in retail for a well known department store for 22 years. Back in the late 1990s I had to let a young sales associate go for getting her nose pierced with a small, barely noticeable stud because our policy said no piercings except for ears. She refused to remove the nose stud. We also made sales associates cover any visible tattoos with their clothing and one associate covered a tattoo on her leg with a patch when she wore a skirt.

    Fast forward to the late 2000s. We had to seriously relax our piercing and tattoo policies as we would not have been able to staff our store particularly with the unemployment rate well below 5% at the time. I had sales sales associates with all sizes of nose, lip and tongue jewelry and proudly sporting visible tattoos – including a cleavage tattoo.

    Funny thing is, we were so afraid of offending our customers in the 90's but I didn't get one complaint about our pierced and tattooed sales team in the 00's. I guess people became more tolerant and accepting of the younger generation and their body art.

  2. In my opinion,this is not so much an HR issue, but a big problem our society has to deal with – many people are so judgmental that companies need to come up with such policies to keep them as customers.

    Frankly, i don't care what employees wear, or how they look as long as they're being polite and efficient.

  3. I used to work for a company where you couldn't have your hair coloured more than 2 shades from your natural base (although the number of 'natural' blondes I know I could probably count on one hand), you had to wear panty hose with your knee length skirt (barf), no piercings except for one set of earrings (and only for women), men couldn't be in the process of growing a beard, and couldn't have long hair, etc etc etc…

    Every time I wear something smart and slightly funky, without the dreaded panty hose, I give a little thanks that I no longer work there; and yes, I would never work under those conditions again.

    I love my bottle red hair too much.

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