Tattoos: Taboo or Cool in the Credit Union Culture?

It’s clear summer has arrived in the Northwest when the HR listserv lights up with a question: “Does your credit union have dress code guidance for tattoos?”

Good question. Tattoos aren’t just a “fringe thing” anymore. A 2012 Harris poll found 26 percent of adults in the western US had tattoos. Not surprisingly, then, many credit union HR specialists did weigh in with policy.

“The credit union reserves the right to require that tattoos be covered. Covering of tattoos may not create a distraction,” states the handbook for a large Oregon credit union. “Body modifications” such as “non-natural modification of teeth” and piercings such as nose rings, tongue piercings, and eyebrow piercings are also banned.

Another credit union’s policy prohibits tattoos that “detract from a professional appearance.”

Milwaukie, Oregon-based Advantis Credit Union has an established policy. Its dress code for employees in retail locations, outside sales and management positions states, “Facial jewelry, such as eyebrow rings, nose rings, lip rings, ear gauges and tongue studs are not appropriate and must not be worn during business hours.” Advantis’ Director of Human Resources, Kelly Sonflieth, is available to discuss how the policy is working, if other credit union HR specialists have questions.

If these policies seem limiting, consider the policy of a community bank in Washington stating that tattoos and body piercings – other than earrings for women – should not be visible.

This is More Complex Than it Sounds

“As a financial institution, a credit union must balance the competing interests of hiring and retaining the employees with superior skills and member service, with presenting a professional appearance to its membership.”
—Kelly R. Tilden, Employment Law Attorney, Farleigh Wada Witt

We reached out to Kelly R. Tilden, an attorney with employment law expertise at Farleigh Wada Witt, for guidance.

“As a financial institution, a credit union must balance the competing interests of hiring and retaining the employees with superior skills and member service, with presenting a professional appearance to its membership,” said Tilden. “The popularity of tattoos and other body art make this challenging. The rise of body art as a form of personal expression or statement of diversity is steadily growing. Most credit unions do not want to forego a great candidate or employee because of a tattoo. Therefore, credit unions choose to adopt a personal appearance policy which requires employees to cover tattoos or body art during work hours or allows employees to show certain tattoos.”

When developing such a policy, Tilden notes, it is important to state a clear objective standard that will be consistently applied throughout the credit union. She recommends avoiding terms such as “inappropriate” or “offensive” and instead using objective terms identifying the location or size of the tattoo.

“Credit unions can also require an employee to cover up a tattoo that could be a violation of any credit union policy such as the harassment/nondiscrimination policy — a tattoo of a swastika — for example,” Tilden said. “In addition, credit unions must keep in mind their legal obligations to provide religious accommodation to employees and this could include the ability to have a tattoo that is part of the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Many dress codes address earrings worn by male employees, something Tilden says could run the risk of a gender discrimination claim.

“Any different restriction on the size of a male’s earrings should be based on business practices and current social norms. It is common for professional workplaces to restrict the size the earrings for both men and women,” she noted.

“The greatest risk of placing restrictions on an employee’s personal appearance,” she says, “is that a supervisor will inconsistently or incorrectly apply the policy.”

Questions about this story? Contact Lynn Heider: 503.350.2225, lheider@nwcua.org.

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