Workplace Issue: Tattoos & body piercings

The EMS Manager


David S. Becker | | Wednesday, June 27, 2007

First impressions are often how we judge a person, but an unacceptable appearance according to one generation can be considered OK by another. Many current EMS employers are likely opposed to allowing visible tattoos or body piercings among their employees. But that may be easier said than done. I recently heard that 10 to 25 percent of high school students have either a body piercing (other than earrings) or a tattoo. And a good portion of candidates for hire could come from this group in the next few years. With this increasing prevalence of tattoos and body piercings in young adults, you should consider the impact of such trends on your agency's hiring and employment practices.

Case in point: Your agency just announced a job opening and published the hiring process used to determine eligibility for employment. You invite all eligible candidates to an assessment center. Several candidates who participate in the process, both men and women, have visible tattoos and several body piercings, including some on their faces. Some of the employees with visible tattoos and piercings coincidentally score the highest during the assessment process. Would this create a problem for your agency? How would hiring these individuals affect other employees?

To extend the case, what happens if a current employee decides to get a visible tattoo or body piercing? Would they be required to cover it while on duty?

Proactive rather than reactive

Often, the restriction or prohibition of visible tattoos or body piercings is aimed at promoting a professional appearance for EMS providers. If your agency is against visible tattoos or body piercings, establish that standard prior to an issue being raised by a current or long-time employee. Some agencies have included these specific standards in a grooming policy.

Before developing such a policy, it's important to decide what's acceptable and determine what forms of self-expression reflect poorly on the image of your EMS organization. Your community may be more accepting of a young provider with a tattoo or piercing than it would be of someone older, particularly someone of retirement age. But to avoid any potential claims of discrimination, the rules must apply equally to everyone.

If you allow visible tattoos, consider guidelines on the nature of acceptable tattoos. Tattoos that could be considered indecent, disrespectful or possibly offensive to your patients should be evaluated and possibly banned from being visible at work. Management should be given the opportunity to approve visible tattoos in all cases, with the discretion to prohibit those considered inappropriate.

If you allow body piercings, do your policies address indecent or offensive pieces of jewelry? For example, jewelry with designs related to Nazism or satanic practices should be explicitly prohibited in the workplace. As with tattoos, your policy should state that all piercings must be approved by management in advance of on-duty display.

As an employer, remember that you can establish a reasonable dress code, as long as you don't discriminate. If female employees are allowed to wear earrings, then male employees could challenge the organization for their right to wear earrings. Likewise, if men are allowed to have military-related tattoos, women should be allowed to as well.

Other specifics to consider:

  • Do your policies address the wearing of facial or oral jewelry, specifically eyebrow, nose, lip or tongue piercings?
  • Do your policies prohibit all loose jewelry because of safety concerns?
  • Do your policies address hair or eyebrow color in terms of being conservative?
  • Do you allow employees to wear clear retainers in place of their facial piercings that allow them to keep the piercings open?


Self-expression used to mean wearing your hair long or short or wearing some type of clothing that brought attention to you. Today, self-expression includes visible tattoos and body piercings, and your agency should be ready to address these trends among the next generation of employees.

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Related Topics: Leadership and Professionalism

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