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Generational differences abound in the workplace, but few are quite as visible as body art: tattoos, piercings (other than ear lobes), and hair dyes in unconventional colors. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, people younger than 40 are much more inclined than those older than 40 to display some form of body art. For example, people 26 to 40 years old are four times more likely to have tattoos than people who are 41 to 64 years old.
With such profound differences, it’s no surprise that in many workplaces body art has become a contentious issue between employees wanting to express themselves and employers wanting to maintain particular standards of professional appearance. As the employment law attorney Danielle S. Urban notes, the issue gets even more complicated when religious symbolism is involved.
Who is likely to win this battle? Will the body art aficionados who continue to join the workforce and who are now rising up the managerial ranks force a change in what is considered acceptable appearance in the workplace? Or will they be forced to cover up to meet traditional standards?
So far, most companies seem to be relying on the judgment of their employees and managers, rather than enforcing strict guidelines. Many seem to accept that tastes and norms are changing and that body art has become a widespread form of self-expression rather than a mode of rebellion. Starbucks, which used to require employees to hide tattoos under long sleeves, recently revised its policy to allow employees to display tattoos everywhere except on their faces. The semiconductor giant Intel even featured photos of employee tattoos in its online technology newsletter.
Job seekers and active employees are still advised to be discreet, however, particularly with facial piercings and large, visible tattoos. In one recent survey about a third of employers said they would be less likely to promote an employee with visible piercings or tattoos. The nonverbal signals you think you are sending might not be the signals a manager receives—or wants to receive.