Personal Expression in the Workplace
June 21, 2019

Body artArt takes on many forms.  The use of Body Art as a means of self-expression has become popular and mainstream.  Body Art is much more than just piercings or tattoos which are the most common forms used.  Other Body Art includes scarification, branding, subdermal implants, scalpelling (i.e., decorative perforations), shaping (i.e., tight-lacing of corsets), full body tattoos and body painting.

Personal expression in the workplace often results in tension.  Employers seek professional looking staff to interact with customers and may limit visible Body Art.  Other employers, where there is little interaction with customers, may take a different perspective on visible Body Art.

Federal law generally prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions), disability, age (40 and older), citizenship status and genetic information.  Pennsylvania law generally prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability (physical or mental), age (40 to 70), GED rather than a high school diploma, use of a service animal and the relationship or association with disabled person.  Some local municipalities have also adopted laws protecting additional characteristics.

An employer can adopt a “no body art” policy as long as it is consistently applied across all genders, races and ages.  Employers are permitted to require employees to cover Body Art at work under its dress code.  However, if the Body Art is worn for religious reasons the ability to restrict them is more limited.

Many companies are now addressing Body Art in a more relaxed manner which addresses size, location, nature and placement of the Body Art.  Employers also need to address Body Art that other employees find offensive or have complained about.

Areas of particular concern in the workplace include items that are offensive, extremist, indecent sexist and racist.  Body Art that advocates a philosophy that degrades or demeans a person based on race, ethnicity, or national origin is never going to be permitted.

Multiple courts have held that there is no legal right to self-expression.  However, any rule limiting or prohibiting visible Body Art must have a reasonable business purpose such as to preserve the employer’s conservative image and should permit the employee to remove or cover Body Art that violates its visibility policy.  Policies that require a neat, clean, and professional image have been upheld by the courts.

As you are picking out your next tattoo or piercing, you have to ask yourself “how will this affect my current job and ones I might apply for 10 years from now?”

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