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Tattoos and Body Piercings in the Workplace

I’ve been asked to respond to the question: what would you do tongue nose lip piercings medical healthcare doctor's office if a staff member came to work with a tattoo or tongue ring? Well, this happened to us a while back, so we developed a policy statement which is now incorporated into our employee handbook.

Basically, it covers jewelry and personal appearance. It states that staff may only wear a certain number
of earrings, necklaces, rings and bracelets. It also says that there shall be no jewelry that is visible to a patient which involves a piercing of any kind, which would include a tongue ring. For someone with a visible tattoo, they are told that it must be covered at all times while at work. We’ve seen tattoos covered with flesh colored band aids, or long-sleeved shirts or turtle necks under their scrubs, and that is fine with us as long as the tattoo is covered.

It is important to have these policies written before the problem presents itself for a couple of reasons:

First, it may prevent the problem from showing up in the first place.

Second, no one can say or feel like you are singling them out since you have made your wishes known in advance. It puts management in a stronger position to be able to enforce the policies you want for your practice.

If you do not have a jewelry or personal appearance policy in effect when you are presented with the problem, do not hesitate to confront the staff member. First, make sure no one else has any tongue rings or visible tattoos; otherwise you will need to speak to each of these staff members individually. Simply call that employee into your office and educate him or her about the policy and give a day or two to comply. If they do not comply, then you will need to take appropriate action. If you have given them a direct order – remove the tongue ring or cover the tattoo – and they do not comply, that is insubordination, and they should be terminated.

In order to avoid this problem, I’d suggest that when interviewing a potential new hire, you review your jewelry and personal appearance policies during the interview so there are no surprises later on. Generally, it has been my experience that staff will conform to policies when they understand your reason(s) for implementing those policies, and also that they know what the rules are in advance whenever possible.


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  1. I think you sounded one sided in this article were you were offeded do you have a issue with this?, piercings at work shoul dnot be a problem do have on earrings at work? tattoos that are visble whats wrong with it? if its not gang related or hateful art then why should there be a problem? do you hide scars or moles or a prostatic arm or leg then why should you hide that tattoos?

    • Alex, thanks for your comment. We, and most of our readers, are physicians in private practice and many of us have patients who are senior citizens. They tend to be conservative and they like their doctor and the doctor’s employees to act and dress the part. I don’t like to wear a tie or a lab coat but sometimes will get a comment from a patient about my ‘overly casual’ attire.

      If you opened a business in NYC or LA that catered to young people, I would expect that tattoos and piercings would be readily accepted. But if your business primarily served older people, they might not appreciate it as much. I have a friend who is an attorney who has a lot of tattoos, but even he covers up with a three-piece suit before he argues a case in court before a judge.

      So, to answer your question, no, I am not personally offended or have an issue with tattoos or body piercings but there is a time and place for personal expression.

  2. There is a time and place for personal expression and at the workplace, is not one of them. The way that you present yourself to others in a workplace is very important. I wouldn’t want my Dr. to wear tatoos or have a ring dangling from his lip I find it disgusting but that is me and it’s my opinion. A Dr. is a Dr. and how they present themselves to you should matter! After all, they are taking care of you! Your life is in their hands. They should address themselves to you appropriately in such a manner that isn’t a distraction as everyone should. Policies are policies and in order to maintain a job, there needs to be certain guidelines to follow and if they don’t get followed the employee should be terminated for insubordination!

    • Tammy, I agree. I think a lot of this comes from the various television medical dramas which depict the young, hip doctors wearing what they want to wear and bucking tradition. In real life, practicing medicine isn’t quite so sexy. A physician-in-training with that kind of mindset would be in for a real attitude adjustment once he or she faced the real world.

  3. Most logical people understand that workplaces have every right to set rules. I get tired of having to surpress my individuality but understand that I have to in order to pay the bills. I think the unfortunate aspect to it all is that people think that people who choose to have tattoos or piercings are somehow not as trustworthy or capable as those who do not. And that’s simply not the case.

  4. Although they were initially considered socially unsatisfactory for ladies, with the selection of celebs that are now sporting elaborate tattoos, they are becoming more sufficient and well-liked for ladies. Naturally most girls want to go with a feminine design that may add an attractive touch to their body.

  5. I honestly feel that tattoos and piercings are made in to a bigger deal then they should be. We are nolonger living in the dark ages, and people need to understand that. I am a CNA and worked in a nursing facility, I have tattoos and they were more of a conversation piece to the residents, more than anything. Its not about whats on the outside as we are always taught, but what is on the inside. We arent supposed to judge, and even if it is a small practice, its your practive. Your casual attire isnt making any less of a Dr. just like tattoos and piercings dont make me any less of a CNA. I think the whole policy is ridiclous. We tell our children to be them selves, be different, dare to stand out, but we are stopping our employees, from being who they want and feel to be. It makes no sense.

    • Melinda, thanks for your comment. Again, I don’t completely disagree with what you are saying. But it really boils down to the specific practice situation. The difference between a nursing home and a private practice is that in the latter case a patient can walk and go to another doctor if they are uncomfortable with what they see. Many of our employees have tattoos but they are asked to be discreet about it. If you have your own practice and want to allow tattoos and piercings, where do you draw the line? Would you allow facial tattoos? How about the themes? Nude figures or satanic icons allowed? Profane phrases allowed (and who decides what is considered profane)? Cheek and chin piercings? What about sub-dermal implants like devil horns, split tongues or teeth filed to sharp points?

      You can see where I am going with this. It would really open up a pandora’s box, and an employee manual would have to be quite extensive to specifically delineate what would be allowed and what would be considered extreme. Since most practitioners don’t have the time or inclination to do that, it is just easier to say, “Just leave your piercings at home and put a band-aid on your tattoo.”

  6. I’m a young guy, 23 yrs old. I tend to lean more on the “hip” side of things and currently have 3 piercings. 2 in my ear, 1 in my lip. I got these done when I was 16, prior to starting a real job. My problem is I want more. I completely respect and agree with the work dress code and, while its not in the medical field, my job requires I work around customers. I’m an engineer for a Hotel chain and a good portion of my job required I respond to “room calls” directly with the customers. I can see where you wouldn’t want some guy with tats and 8 holes in his face to greet a paying customer. However, I’d like to know your “legal” opinion on an, already hired, employee getting new piercings where they need time to heal before the jewelery can be removed. I understand that there is a dress code policy in most places that arent considered “mc-jobs”, but I think these policies are basically telling us, we cant have piercings in general. If I go and get my other ear pierced, its going to need time to heal before i can, (happily) remove the jewlery. Could you really tell someone they have to remove the piercings, knowing the hole will close? Also, please keep in mind I dont bring issues up with my tats and piercings. I’m not a “problem” employee. I happily take my piercings out and cover my tats without so much as an argument. But can you really tell me I cant get more or enforce the dress code knowing the money I spent on an earring, (not a tongue, eyebrow, nose etc) will go to waste?

    • Joe, thanks for the comment. To best answer your questions, I will post a response from our administrator Bob Tilley, who usually handles these issues:

      The reader is looking for a “legal opinion”, which of course I cannot
      provide since we are a medical practice and not a legal practice, and I
      am not an attorney. As for whether the employer can “really tell me I
      can’t get more or enforce the dress code”, my answer would simply be
      “yes, they can”. Just look at the Walt Disney Company, which of course is
      a very large employer. Look closely at the “cast members” (staff). The
      rules are not arbitrary, and are enforceable. It’s impossible to
      believe that Disney just happens to select their employees from the same
      labor pool as everyone else and no one in the labor pool has visible
      tats or visible body piercings. This is America, and people can work
      wherever they want. AND, employers can set whatever dress codes they
      want, assuming that the codes do not violate the rights of individuals
      such as clothing that expresses religious beliefs. The employer has the
      right to present their staff (and therefore their company) in whatever
      manner they wish, and staff can accept that code or move on. To the
      best of my knowledge there are no “rights” that staff have to tats and
      body piercings – this group is not a “protected class”. As for the money
      you have/will spend, I’d suggest having a conversation with your
      supervisor before incurring the expense – it might save you some money!
      But don’t take my word for it – contact an attorney in your state and
      see what advice they can give you.

  7. Thank you for the quick response.. I’m not so much as looking for a “legal” thing so much as “can they really do that”? I’m not a boat rocker.. At the moment I consider myself blessed to even have a job, let alone a good paying one with 40 hrs a week. I’m not going to let piercings stop that. There’s more than one way to handle the issue though. Flesh colored jewlery to help hide them. Thank you for your advice in this matter though, I’ll have a talk with my supervisor to see if he’d be willing to turn a blind eye for a few weeks since I’m doing everything I can to make it as un-noticable as possible

  8. What really bothers me is that tattoos and piercings are a type of body modification. Just as plastic surgery and even whitening your teeth. Why is it okay to accept those modifications, which I think most of the time are being fake and superficial, but it isn’t okay to have tattoos that mean something to you, or to express yourself? Another thing, people say that if you have piercings or tattoos it can be a distraction, but what about people who get breast implants. They can be just as big or even bigger of a distraction, but they are accepted by many. I know where your coming from with your trade and even other workplaces it could put the person in danger to have a loop in their lip. I just find that these rules that peopel set contradict themselves.

  9. Nicole: Life is full of such strange contradictions. Take something simple, like earrings.
    It used to be “normal” for ladies to wear earings, but not men (if they did then “they were probably gay”).
    It’s “normal” if a lady wears *a pair* of earings. But what about 2 pairs? 3 pairs? 6 pairs? At what point is it no longer “normal”? (Yes, 6 pairs of tiny studs can look nicer than one pair of garish earrings,and that makes it so difficult often to actually define ok vs non-ok)

    At the end of the day, a business has to pamper to it’s customers. If the customers prefer to be served by middle-aged ladies rather than young men, who will the business employ?

    Maybe you PREFER to be served by someone WITH tattoos or piercings…. now you are discriminating the other way. Is that wrong? No, it’s just you being you. But when you are the CUSTOMER, your feelings are 100% important to the business.

    There is no good answer, you just have to apply large amounts of common sense, something which often gets forgotten about these days… something to do with PC and litigation I suspect!!

  10. I am a student at CU Boulder doing a paper on the appropriateness of tattoos in the workplace, and I was just hoping you could let me know if there are any your policy seems to reflect the overarching attitude towards tattoos/piercings in a medical profession. The earlier responses have seemed to discuss the social implications of tattoos/piercings, and I agree that a business has to uphold the values its customers desire, but I was just wondering if your policy is similar to that of other medical offices (private or public)? I feel that the policies should be flexible based on the environment, and perhaps it is “less sanitary” to have a lip ring in a medical profession or food service profession than it is if you work behind a computer all day. Are there sanitation reasons behind piercing’s specifically?

    • Alexandra, thanks for the comment. In general, a medical clinic or hospital will have policies regarding infection control and employees’ need for hygiene, to reduce the risk to patients. One example is the prohibition of fake fingernails which are notorious for harboring bacteria. Earrings are a no-no in the operating rooms as they can fall into the operating field (although if they are not the dangly kind this may not be enforced) and nose rings or lip studs would probably fall into this category.

      Anything that can’t be kept clean and runs the risk of being touched by the employee or dropped into a wound or a sterile environment could potentially spread infection to a patient. So body piercings that are covered would not apply. These would fall under the discretion of the employer. A business has the right to set the rules. An employee does not have the ‘right’ to wear piercings to work and this is not a free speech issue either (but the nuances of that would best be discussed with an attorney who specializes in employment and labor law).

      If a doctor has no problem with his or her employees wearing nose rings or cheek studs and the patients don’t mind either then no harm done. Hope that helps.

  11. I support your policies! I get disgusted when I go to my doctor and the nurses and technicians are covered in tattoos and piercings. I wish all doctors would follow this policy. It is the most unprofessional image that can ever be displayed in a workplace! Your doctor’s office is a place where patients need to feel confident that all practices going on are strictly professional. The very minute I see somebody with a tattoo or piercing, the word “Hepatitis” enters my mind. There’s no telling what kind of infectious diseases these people are harboring that they don’t even know about.

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