Tattooed Need Not Apply

Table of Content

Deborah Connor, an employee at the Hub Folding Box Co., has filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging gender discrimination and retaliation. The lawsuit alleges that despite a male colleague being allowed to display his Navy tattoo, Connor was instructed to conceal her heart-shaped forearm tattoo under threat of termination. The company’s reasoning behind this directive was their concern that customers might form negative opinions of Connor due to her ink, as they believed that a woman with tattoos could be linked to prostitution, drug addiction, or a troubled upbringing (Pechman, 2005).

Regrettably, there is a widespread occurrence of workplace discrimination in North America because employers hold outdated stereotypes regarding tattoos. These stereotypes associate individuals with tattoos as criminals, pirates, bikers, circus sideshow freaks, or degenerates (Ponte & Gillian, 2007). Nevertheless, it is imperative to recognize that tattoos have deep significance and symbolize a diverse cultural heritage dating back 5,000 years (Franklin-Barbajosa, 2004).

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According to Franklin-Barbajosa (2004), tattoos may have served as a means of healing for ancient tribes and were worn by Britons as symbols of honor in war. During the Crusades, warriors would tattoo themselves with the Jerusalem cross to secure a Christian burial if they perished in battle. In the mid-1900s, tattoos became closely associated with fringe cultures, sailors, and veterans of World War II. Franklin-Barbajosa (2004) also observes that tattooing is currently undergoing a worldwide resurgence.

According to Health Canada (2006), the number of women with tattoos in the United States has significantly increased from 1960 to 1980, making them the fastest growing group of individuals getting tattoos in America (Ponte & Gillian, 2007). The Pew Research Center (2007) conducted a study which found that 40% of Americans aged 26-40 have tattoos (p.23). Many people choose to get tattoos as a way to enhance their beauty or express their self-identity (Horne & Knox & Zusman & Zusman, 2007).

A Californian defence attorney recently chose to conceal a scar from a life-threatening surgery with a tattoo that was described as “beautiful and majestic and evocative of grandeur and strength but also very beautiful” (PBS, 2003). This brings up the issue of why employers still enforce strict dress codes on their employees, causing unnecessary grievances. Is it fair for employers to limit their employees’ freedom of speech, expression, religion, and beliefs in favor of superficial grooming and attire standards? (Ponte & Gillian, 2007). Employers should start looking beyond tattoos and acknowledge the potential within their employees. “It is widely accepted that employers can establish reasonable dress codes and grooming standards that are justified by business needs and applied without discrimination” (Pechman, 2005). The Washington State Future Business Leaders of America (2004) specify the professional dress code for men: sports coat or business suit, tucked-in dress shirt with tie, belt, dress socks, and matching dress shoes.

The dress code for women requires them to wear a business suit or blazer, a blouse, slacks, a suit skirt or dress (with the hem no more than 2″ above the knee), and closed toe dress shoes or boots (with a heel no higher than 2″) (p. 2). The dress code does not allow visible tattoos. However, should tattoos on someone’s skin really matter if they are dressed professionally? Dress codes can vary depending on the workplace, with options such as business casual attire or uniforms. But what happens when uniforms fail to cover up tattoos? This issue is exemplified in the case of Riggs v.

The City of Fort Worth mandated that Riggs, a bicycle patrol officer, must don long sleeves and pants while on duty, while other officers in his unit were permitted to wear short sleeves and pants. According to Ponte & Gillian (2007), this requirement aimed to uphold the professionalism expected of a Fort Worth police officer. Unfortunately, Riggs suffered from heat stroke multiple times as a result of this discrimination. Despite medical professionals advising against wearing long sleeves and pants during work, Riggs encountered demotion and was informed by his chief that eligibility for promotions would be hindered due to his tattoos.

Riggs sued the Fort Worth Police Department, alleging discrimination based on national origin, race, and freedom of expression (Ponte & Gillian, 2007). The Inter-American Declaration on Freedom of Expression asserts that all forms of censorship or interference with expression should be prohibited, regardless of whether it is spoken, written, artistic, visual, or electronic. Considering this perspective, shouldn’t tattoos also be legally protected as they represent a form of artistic expression? Many people have tried to use the first amendment’s right to freedom of expression to fight against appearance-based workplace discrimination; however their success has been limited (Pechman, 2005). In Riggs’ case mentioned earlier, he argued that his Celtic tribal design tattoo symbolizes his heritage and that his other tattoos also serve as forms of artistic expression.

According to the court, Riggs was not subjected to discrimination because his tattoos were seen as a form of personal expression rather than speech that addresses a legitimate public concern, such as a political message (Ponte & Gillian, 2005). It is troubling that despite Riggs’ competence in his job, his employer and the court denied him equal opportunities for advancement solely based on his tattoos.

The first amendment ensures freedom of religion, and individuals have found more success in seeking protection against tattoo discrimination through this provision. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. faced a costly consequence when they were found guilty of religious discrimination in a case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Edward Rangel, an employee of Red Robin, followed the Egyptian Kemetic religion, which involves undergoing a rite of passage that includes receiving religious tattoos.

These tattoos, which were less than a quarter wide and encircled his wrists, represented Rangel’s dedication to his creator. Concealing these tattoos is seen as a sin, and Rangel was fired for refusing to cover them up. However, according to the American “Civil Rights Act of 1964,” employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs, unless it would cause undue hardships for the business (EEOC, 2005).

Many employers, such as Red Robin, use the defense of “undue hardship” during discrimination lawsuits, claiming it would negatively impact their legitimate business interests in maintaining a “neat, clean and professional image” (Pechman, 2005). However, what about the challenges that individuals with tattoos, who also strive for a neat and professional appearance, face on a daily basis due to ignorance? Former CFO of Red Robin, James McCloskey, clearly highlighted the misconceptions surrounding people with tattoos when he stated that the company prioritizes individuals with “Christian” values and seeks an “all-American kid,” rather than those with an “urban kind of experience” (EEOC, 2005). Dress and grooming codes should be based on the ability to perform job tasks effectively, rather than biased assumptions about coworker and customer reactions or efforts to maintain traditional power dynamics (Ponte & Gillian, 2007). How many more lawsuits must employees endure before they are granted the right to express themselves through their appearance? When will employers focus on a person’s qualifications rather than being distracted by their looks?

Currently, employees are still fighting for their democratic rights, including freedom of expression, speech, religion, and belief.

Perhaps we must be patient and wait for the tattooed employees of today to become the future leaders of industry.


  1. EEOC (2005, September 16). Burger Chain to Pay $150,00 to Resolve EEOC Religious Discrimination Suit. The U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from http://www. eeoc. gov/press/9-16-05. html
  2. Franklin-Barbajosa, C. (2004, December). Tattoo: Pigments of Imagination. National Geographic. Retrieved June 1, 2009, from http://ngm. nationalgeographic. com/ngm/0412/online_extra. html
  3. Health Canada (2006, December 15). It’s Your Health. Tattooing and Piercing. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from http://www. hc-sc. gc. ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/life-vie/tat-eng. php
  4. Horne, J. , & Knox, D. , & Zusman, J. , & Zusman, M. E. (2007, December). Tattoos and Piercings: Attitudes, Behaviors, and Interpretations of College Students. College Student Journal, 1011-1020. IADPF. Inter-American Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www. cidh. oas. org/declaration. htm
  5. PBS. (May 4, 2003). A Beautiful Tattoo Hides a Secret. Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo. Retrieved June 11, 2009, From http://www. pbs. org/skinstories/stories/price. html
  6. Pechman, L. (2005, December 19). Keeping Up Appearances at Work. New York Law Journal. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from http://www. law. com/jsp/article. jsp? id=900005546802
  7. Pew Research Center. (2007, January 9). How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics a Portrait of “Generation Next”. Pew Research Center For the People and the Press. Retrieved June 10, 2009, from http://people-press. org/reports/pdf/300. pdf
  8. Ponte, L. M and Gillian, J. L. Gender Performance Over Job Performance: Body Art Work Rules and the Continuing Subordination of the Feminine. Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www. law. duke. edu/shell/cite. pl? 14+Duke+J. +Gender+L. +&+Pol’y+319
  9. Washington State Future Business Leaders of America. (2004, June 4). Federal Way Public Schools. Professional Dress Code. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from http://schools. fwps. org/tj/fbla/pdf/dcwa. pdf

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Tattooed Need Not Apply. (2018, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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