Dress Codes, Tattoos, and Federal Employees: A Brave New World

An earlier article on dress codes in the federal workplace generated many comments from federal employees. Here is a follow-up article to address some of the issues raised by readers.

Having been overwhelmed by the number of comments (77 at last count) that were posted in response to my recent article on agency dress codes, in addition to the two dozen or more that were sent directly to me, I decided to wade back into those treacherous waters. Now, if someone would cue up the theme from “Jaws”…

The FedSmith.com readers who commented on the article raised a number of important points, including some that I had missed or could not squeeze into the article. For example, several people wrote about safety clothing and equipment, which might include such items as safety glasses, goggles or face shields, masks, respirators, hearing protection, steel-toed boots and non-slip footware, solvent resistant gloves, aprons, hard hats, coveralls or other special clothing.

Federal agencies are required to provide safe and healthy work environments for their employees. Therefore, if a supervisor can demonstrate that an order to wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots on a particular worksite is for safety reasons, such a decision would be all but impossible for a disgruntled employee to successfully contest.
Another issue that was raised by commenters was body piercings, body art, and other forms of “body modification.”

A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online article from August 2004 defined tattooing “as the art of permanently depositing pigment into the skin to a depth of 1-2 mm to create a design,” noting that the “art dates back to 2000 B.C. as a tribal custom in many different parts of the world, including Africa and North America.”

The article went on to define ear/body piercing as “the insertion of metal jewelry into skin tissue using an ear piercing gun or long needles. The most frequently pierced sites, according to Health Canada, include ears, nose, navel, lip, tongue, nipples and genitals.” (Author’s Note: “Ouch!”).

The CBC article further noted that there was evidence that body piercing was growing in popularity and noted that between 1960 and 1980 the number of U.S. women who were tattooed quadrupled, totaling between 50,000 and 100,000 tattoos annually.

A footnote to the article, “New Developments on Tattoos and Body Piercing in the Workplace,” by Laurel A. Van Buskirk, published in the December 2005 edition of the New Hampshire Business Review, cited a 2003 online Harris Poll (conducted by Harris Interactive) which found that 16 percent of all U.S. adults had at least one tattoo. The age group with the highest incidence of tattoos was the 25-29 year-olds (36 %), followed by 30-39 year olds (28 %).

I can offer “anecdotal evidence” of the increase in body piercing and body art among younger generations. A few years ago, our daughter took me to a sold-out Dave Matthews Band concert at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. By visual observation, Kris and I were among a very small minority of fans there who did not sport tattoos and/or body piercings (beyond the “traditional” ear-piercing to allow for pierced earrings).

In another New Hampshire Business Review article, “Tattoos & Body Piercing: Avoiding Employment Discrimination Claims,” Ms. Van Buskirk and Andrea Johnstone observed that “The prevalence of visible tattoos, body piercings and other forms of body modification (has) caused some companies to adopt policies that either prohibit or place restrictions on visible tattoos, body piercings and other body art.”

Marine Corps policy now bans any new, extra-large tattoos below the elbow or the knee, on the theory that such body art is harmful to the Corps’ spit-and-polish image. As reported by Thomas Watkins of the Associated Press, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway recently announced the policy change, stating that “Some Marines have taken the liberty of tattooing themselves to a point that is contrary to our professional demeanor and the high standards America has come to expect from us. I believe tattoos of an excessive nature do not represent our traditional values.”

The Marines and the other branches of the military already ban tattoos that could be offensive or disruptive, such as images that are sexist, vulgar, gang-related or extremist.The Navy last year decreed that tattoos visible while in short-sleeve uniform cannot be larger than the wearer’s hand. The Air Force says tattoos should be covered if they are bigger than one-quarter the size of the exposed body part. Meanwhile, the Army has gone in the other direction, having relaxed its tattoo restrictions last year.

Jacquelyn Lynn observed in a 1998 article for Entrepreneur that “As body piercing and tattooing becomes more popular and accepted in mainstream American culture, more employees are showing up at work with these enhancements.” Nine years later, the numbers and trends tell me that the national culture has shifted even more toward acceptance of body art.

Given the large and growing number of people in the U.S. who have some form(s) of body art, if the issue hasn’t surfaced yet in your agency it is highly likely to do so in the near future. I would, however, argue that Federal agencies are not the same as fast-food restaurants or record stores, and that the “cultures” of the agencies with which I am familiar have not yet embraced body art.

In “Keeping Up Appearances at Work,” an article published in the New York Law Journal on December 16, 2005, Louis Pechman noted that “It is generally recognized that employers are free to set reasonable dress codes and grooming standards that are business-justified and applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. In the case of individuals with tattoos and piercings, there is no federal or state law that affords them explicit protection from employment discrimination on the basis of their appearance.”

In Ms. Van Buskirk’s solo article, referenced above, she opined that employees “typically find these policies invasive of their personal lives and an unwanted dictation of style. In some instances, enforcement of work rules regarding tattoos and piercings (has) resulted in claims of employment discrimination.” Mr. Pechman observed that “Employees in such cases have met with limited success in trying to establish a connection between their body art and a protected class such as religion, gender or national origin.”

A number of commenters on my first article thought it was logical (as do I) to extend the concept of dress codes to include personal hygiene. Along those lines, Regina M. Robo, News Editor, Hobsons, offered the following tips:

  • Cleanliness – Practices vary from culture to culture, but in U.S. business it’s customary to arrive at work having showered and shampooed within the previous 24 hours.
  • Groomed nails – Fingernails should be kept clean, short or moderate in length – and out of your mouth.
  • Cheerful breath – Food-related bad breath can be managed by keeping a toothbrush at work for those after-lunch meetings. Chronic bad breath is a treatable medical condition; consult your doctor if you think it’s you.
  • Understated scent – Light, discreet perfumes and colognes are a form of personal expression and pride; but overpowering scents can detract from your more important messages about the work itself.

As I noted in the earlier article, some Federal agencies, or components thereof, have dress codes and others do not. Even in the absence of a dress code, I believe that a supervisor always has the right – and the responsibility – to determine appropriate dress for the workplace. I would add that the supervisor also has a vested interest in ensuring that personal hygiene issues due not become a problem for the unit.

Surveys conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council and others have consistently shown that the number one reason employees don’t do what management wants them to do (i.e., in the performance arena) is because they don’t know what management wants them to do. I think management would be well advised not to just assume that employees know what their agency’s expectations are with respect to dress and hygiene.

I’m not sure how many agencies still have orientation sessions for groups of new employees, but I think that is an excellent forum for conveying agency expectations as to dress, hygiene, etc. With or without new employee orientation, I would encourage supervisors to cover these issues individually with new employees. Some agencies assign mentors to new employees, which I think is a great way to introduce an employee to an agency’s culture and to flatten her/his learning curve. Mentors can also help convey agency expectations as to dress and hygiene.

If an agency or an individual supervisor is contemplating a dress code or policy, I would strongly encourage that it be a collaborative effort with affected employees. If there are bargaining unit employees involved, the supervisor should talk to an agency Labor-Management Relations official first for guidance. Good luck!

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.