Piercing, Tattoos Create
Workplace Issues
By Mary Jo Feldstein

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Ron Carter's Starbucks' Coffee uniform includes pants, a shirt, an apron -- and wristbands to hide his coffee connoisseur customers from the tattoos on his arm.
The drawings are ``nothing serious, no gang emblems or anything,'' said Carter, a coffee taster for several Starbucks restaurants in Chicago. One of the tattoos is the word ``Janet'' -- Carter is a fan of pop star Janet Jackson -- the other is Sanfok, a form of African tribal art.
His case is not unusual in the U.S. workplace, where the popularity of body piercing and tattoos is posing a challenge to the dress codes of many employers.
While Carter would like Starbucks' appearance guidelines to be more relaxed, he understands the company's reasoning.
``I just take it as a protocol,'' he said. ``It's a business.''
Chris Gimbl, a spokesperson for Starbucks Corp., said employees generally see the chain is trying to present a clean, neat environment and are willing to adhere to its policies.
A few employees have been terminated for refusing to remove piercings or cover tattoos, Gimbl said.
Starbucks requires employees to cover all tattoos and remove certain piercings. Carter has obliged for seven years, since he began work for the Seattle-based coffee seller.
Under the law, if Carter wants to work at Starbucks, he does not have a choice. Employers are allowed to impose dress codes and appearance policies as long as they do not discriminate on race, color, religion, age, national origin or gender said Diane Amos, a public affairs specialist at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Still, as the number of pierced and tattooed employees has grown, so have the numbers of employees challenging the legality of appearance policies, said Ethan Winning, a human resources consultant who has been retained by companies in more than a such dozen lawsuits.
``I've never known an employee to win a case and I've never known a company to lose a case,'' Winning said. ``The employer can set a reasonable standard for dress as long as it doesn't discriminate.''
Specific and consistent appearance codes are less vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits, said human resources consultant Lynne McClure. She has acted as a mediator between companies and employees in several appearance policy disputes.
``Our whole society has become very lawsuit happy,'' McClure said. ``I think companies are very vulnerable as people get more aware of the whole diversity issue. Companies need to be consistent with the dress codes they impose and consistent about enforcing them.''
Wal-mart Stores Inc. has developed specific policies regarding piercing and tattoos ``as the culture has evolved and issues have come up,'' said Tom Williams, a spokesperson for the company -- the largest U.S. nongovernmental employer.
Wal-mart does not allow facial jewelry, specifically eyebrow, nose and lip piercing. It also requires earrings and hair color, on both men and women, to be ``conservative.'' Employees with ``offensive'' tattoos must agree to keep them covered.
Appearance has an impact on both employee performance and customer perceptions, according to Williams.
He said the policies exist because they help customers feel comfortable. ``So when they come shopping it is a pleasant experience for them,'' he said.
But employers need to consider whether a piercing or a tattoo is worth the expense of a lawsuit or training a new employee, McClure said.
``In today's marketplace there are more jobs than there are people,'' McClure said. ``I usually think it is best for companies to keep the ones (workers) they got.''
But some employers, including Sears, Roebuck and Co., the No. 2 U.S. retailer, and Ameritech Corp., a telephone service provider that is a unit of SBC Communications Inc., said safety concerns obligate them to strictly enforce the company dress code. Loose jewelry can become entangled with equipment, they said.
Ameritech recently suspended three employees without pay for refusing to remove facial piercings.
``Its wearing suitable clothing for the type of work that is going to be done,'' said Denise Koenig, a spokesperson for Ameritech. ``We make evaluations based on safety all the time.''


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