The New York Times article Tattoos Gain Even More Visibility discusses the rising popularity of body art and challenges facing employers in regulating employee dress. The article focuses on tattoos but raises the larger issue of employer dress code standards and their challenges in terms of both employee retention and legal compliance.
Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employers Law Blog notes that Employment decisions based on tattoos are not discriminatory and I would add “per se”. In fact, most courts defer to an employer’s evaluation of dress standards focusing on whether the policy is discriminatory or fails to reasonably accommodate religious practices. For example, in Coulter v. Costco Wholesale Corp., a court determined that “Costco has made a determination that facial piercings, aside from earrings, detract from the "neat, clean and professional image" that it aims to cultivate. Such a business determination is within its discretion. As another court has explained, ‘Even assuming that the defendants’ justification for the grooming standards amounted to nothing more than an appeal to customer preference, . . . it is not the law that customer preference is an insufficient justification as a matter of law.’"
Courts may not question the business reason for the dress code standard, but the application of the standard across the pool of applicants and employees is clearly, where discrimination can occur. Discrimination is more likely to occur where managers are called upon to subjectively evaluate compliance. As noted in the NYTimes article, “Defining what the courts in the Cloutier case called a “neat, clean and professional” workplace image becomes more challenging when you consider that in 2006, a Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of people age 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those age 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo.” The difficulty arises from both the prevalence of tattoos and the excessive subjectivity of the standard.
Human Resource Professionals and managers loathe their role as fashion policy, but the subjectivity of some dress code standards invites claims of discrimination. For example, an employer requires all applicants to have a “neat, clean and professional appearance”. If hiring managers are called upon to describe this qualification standard, it is likely that all will have different measures. If the subjective dress standard disproportionately disqualifies applicants in a protected class, it may be challenged as discriminatory.
Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist gives a great perspective on customer preference in his post Your Employee’s Tattoo Is Causing a Consumer Confidence Issue….John Phillips at The Word on Employment Law also comments on the subject in his post Coming to Your Workplace: Visible Tattoos.