Ok, even I, with all my tattoo law nerdiness, am getting tired of all the "tattoo discrimination" news articles, but I wanted to briefly highlight yet another recent case of dress code policies and discrimination. On August 1st, New Orleans police must cover all visible tattoos or face discipline -- or even termination.
Cops covering up is nothing new. I wrote about police officer tattoo policies in Arizona, and also dress codes for certain Canadian police departments. In my writing, I've held a more conservative view (which is changing) that private employers have a general right to institute dress code policies and make appearance-based hiring decisions, as long as the discrimination is not based on a protected class. However, public employees have a greater deal of protection when it comes to discrimination in hiring and dress policies, and in the case of cops, the practicalities of the job should trump outdated ideas of who gets tattooed.
Raymond Burkart III, attorney and spokesman for the NOLA Fraternal Order of Police, said it best: "As we reach temperatures close to 100 degrees on some days, [the new policy] just seems like cruel and unusual punishment, just because you are proud that you served in the U.S. Navy or you put the name of your child on your arm." He added: "Does the person calling 911 in an emergency situation really care whether a police officer's tattoo is visible? They just want a police response and a timely one. Does it matter that an officer who catches an armed robber has a tattoo? You took a dangerous criminal off the street. We have to ask ourselves: Are we prioritizing our reforms?"
The argument of the New Orleans Police Department is that they wish to give a more "professional appearance to law enforcement officers." I may have agreed with this ten years ago, when I first started writing about tattoo discrimination; however, as I mentioned, my views are changing -- and it's because society is changing.
The latest tattoo statistics in the US are the following: one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo; 38% of adults aged 30-39 are most likely to have a tattoo; and women are slightly more likely than men to have a tattoo.
So, considering just how many tattooed Americans exist today -- and now add the non-tattooed people who love us -- what is the current reality that people will negatively react to the tattooed cops, lawyers, teachers, and baristas they are coming across at this very moment? I'll tell ya: waaaay less than they did ten years ago.
I'm not saying that people should continue to tattoo their faces and then email me because they want help suing companies that won't hire them. Stop that. Discrimination is wrong. That said, we also have to be practical and facial tattooing still carries a great deal of negative stigma. And so perhaps the most realistic fight should be for dress code policies that reflect current societal norms. So, if my mom is watching multitudes of tattoo TV shows and my high society sis knows more about Kat Von D than I do ... well, it seems that mass culture has accepted tattoo culture to a great extent. As such, the NOLA PD and others around the country need to reconsider their stance and realize that being professional is about doing good work, not how good you look while doing it.
Every now and again there's a wave of articles on tattoos in the workplace, and here's how they all go: more people have tattoos so now there are more workers with tattoos who no longer want to cover them up. They cite the latest Harris Poll or Pew Research poll because statistics are sexy. And then they'll use words like "tats" or "inked up" simply to annoy me.
Oh, and then there are the comments from the masses! If you think tattoo discrimination no longer exists, read the comments section of any tattoo article around the world -- go ahead, I'll wait -- and see that there are multitudes of people with unblemished skin who are personally offended by yours. They say that don't want you serving them coffee or selling them panties. There's always some lower level manager who barks that he would never hire someone with tattoos, of course not knowing that his CEO probably has one. With the strong response to these articles -- which advertisers love because they can flash more products in your face while you're seething at Bob from Boise -- you'll find that the same reporting gets thrown out there.
Yesterday the NY Times published its own tattoos-at-work story. I expected it to be better than most, because it is the Times, but there were the usual cliches: "tattoos are no longer the sole province of gang members, garage mechanics ..." Ah mechanics! That's more clever than sailors and bikers. But the verbiage is almost always the same. Then the statistics follow. Then they call in the lawyers to comment on discrimination. Many times that's me, but our answers are usually all the same: Generally companies have a great deal of discretion in hiring and enforcing their workplace appearance policies as long as they don't discriminate on the basis of religion, sex, race, color, or national origin under Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act.
The take-away from the NY Times article is that those in conservative offices are more likely to cover up than those in more creative fields. No will will gasp in disbelief at that. What would have meatier is to do some research on the public perception of tattoos, now that so many more people are covered, now there we are inundated with reality shows, now that Kat Von D is a best selling author. And then see how those perceptions affect people's wallets.
Internet comment trolls aside, are people who don't like tattoos not going to go to a restaurant or not buying a Starbucks coffee because some employees may have them? Does their cash follow their opinions on the art? In a number of cases it may. The Starbucks in a small religious town may feel backlash but it's not going to happen in my hood in Brooklyn. Perhaps having managers of different regions decide the policy would be a better option than a company-wide ban.
I do think companies that have a legitimate right to want to protect their brand image should be able to do so within the bounds of the law, but they should do so within the bounds of common sense. I've used this example before, but I do think that if I wanted to hire just heavily tattooed badass attorneys, I should be allowed to. If I want to reach a tattoo collector and artist clientele, having just tattooed attorneys conveys that we have a personal understanding the issues. And that may be total bullshit. You don't need a tattoo to provide effective legal services to a tattoo studio, but creating brand trust -- just like all luxury brands do -- has a greater reach to your target market.
Bottom line: We need to fight discrimination. We need to do so by gathering information to prove that the stereotypes are wrong. But we also need to balance that with legitimate rights of people and companies to do business the way they want. There needs to be corporate responsibility but also personal responsibility for our decisions. There needs to be a balance.
Here are some past post on tattoos and discrimination on N+S:
Thanks to Bill of Tattoosday for the NY Times link!
Taking a quick beach break to post this interesting article from The NY Times today entitled "Booking Criminals and Comparing Ink." It's a report on the new policy by the Phoenix Police Department to ban visible tattoos that are larger than a 3-by-5 index card and tattoos on the face, neck or hands. Of course, racist tattoos and others deemed offensive are banned as well.
In the past, when I've discussed tattoos and employment discrimination, I've taken a conservative approach saying that one shouldn't be so outraged if Starbucks doesn't hire you because of your neck tattoo. I believe there is the responsibility of owning your tattoos, and if you chose to work in a field that has certain dress codes, then abide or chose another workplace, just like so many abide by hem lines and tie requirements.
For me, it's not just covering up in the courtroom. At this very moment, I am on a Greek island with my family wearing long sleeves in the heat out of respect for them because tattoos still have a stigma here that my family finds upsetting.
That said, I'm beginning to mellow on my original position re: covering up at work, and this Phoenix Police Department ban is a good example why. In Arizona, covering up is fairly impractical for cops because, well, it's really hot. As stated by Mark Spencer, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association: "Imagine having to wear long sleeves along with body armor, a gun belt and having to get in and out of a police car 50 times every day."
But this also has to be weighed against the goals of the department, one of which is establishing a sense of trust and security between the public and the department. And this is the tricky part. In the article, two cops offer differing opinions. One 11-year veteran says that he gets more negative than positive reactions from the public and has no problems with the new policy. Another officer, who has been on the force for three years, said that she believes it helps connect her to the community: "It gives us a sense of humanity [...] We're normal people just like everyone else."
Another big issue is the stigma itself. While clearly present on this small Greek island, is it still seen as a mark of criminality and deviance in big cities in the States? This is discussed in the article as well:
Questions like these on the practical issues surrounding tattoo bans in dress codes do sway my thoughts on the issue. I've also been thinking on Professor William Peace's guest post yesterday in which he says that "every disabled and tattooed person has obligation to rebel against ignorance, prejudice and any attempt to socially isolate people who are different."
I'll continue to ponder it today over a cold cocktail by the sea. Meanwhile, you can weigh in on the Needles & Sins FB group page.
Wing tattoos by Vincent Hocquet (featured in Black Tattoo Art).
Last Friday, the US Air Force rescinded a new ban on tattoos visible on a recruit's right "saluting arm." The ban had come into effect November 25th and met with a great deal of scrutiny in the press as 26 recruits were soon turned away from basic training because of their tattoos, tattoos that were acceptable under the original standard.
According to the Air Force Times, that old standard is the following: "Official Air Force policy bans only tattoos that are obscene or do not fit a 'military image,' that cover more than one-fourth of a body part, or are above the collarbone."
This Air Force policy has renewed interest in the debate over tattoo policies -- not just in the military -- but in the workplace. I wrote a great deal about it for Needled.com but those posts did not survive its demise so I'll break down some big issues for ya here.
The first time I wrote about discrimination and body art was for BMEzine in 2004 called "Employment Discrimination: Be Careful What You Sue For" [yes, my bio info for the article has surely changed!] Since that article, there have been new developments, but start there for a more detailed primer on federal job discrimination laws.
Here are some basic points on tattoos and workplace appearance policies:
Companies have a great deal of discretion in enforcing their workplace appearance policies as long as they don't discriminate on the basis of religion, sex, race, color, or national origin under Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act.
Even if you claim your tattoos are protected for reasons such as religion or national origin, that doesn't mean you can wear a swastika on your neck and serve customers with abandon. Courts will often look to see if an employer offered you "reasonable accommodation" -- that is, whether they found a way to eliminate the conflict between your tattoo and their work requirements without undue hardship to the business.
Perfect example is in Cloutier v Costco [mentioned in my 2004 article but had not yet been decided]. In this case, a cashier at the mega-wholesale chain sued because she was not allowed to have visible facial piercings. She claimed that her eyebrow piercing was part of her religion as a member of the "Church of Body Modification" (CoBM). After a lengthy court battle, the US Court of Appeals in Boston did not rule on whether CoBM is a bona fide religion but found that Costco met its burden of showing that it had offered Cloutier a reasonable accommodation of her religious practice: a clear plastic retainer that took the place of the eyebrow jewelry. Therefore, no conflict.
When an employee has been outright fired for visible religious tattoos and offered no accommodation, it has not gone so well. The Red Robin restaurant chain paid out $150,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when it dismissed a waiter for not covering up a verse from an Egyptian scripture tattooed on his wrists, a noted practice of his Kermetic faith. As part of the settlement, Red Robin also had to change its policies to accommodate religious beliefs.
Workplace dress codes should be clear and reasonable, but again, employers can often mandate cover-ups or not hire someone because they are tattooed. Granted, in the US where over a third of the population is tattooed, it doesn't make much business sense to keep a large portion of the work pool away, but companies are allowed to make bad decisions and get away with them. Hell, if they can plunge nations into mass recessions, they can certainly tell you to hide your tattoos (most of the time).
But also think of the flip side: Should businesses like tattoo studios or punk clubs be forced to hire chino-wearing preppies without an ounce of ink? Shouldn't businesses who cater to a certain group be able to freely create an image to attract that group (if they do so within the law)?
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.