Religious Discrimination — Visible Body Modification: Tattoos and Piercings in the Workplace, Part 1
By Mary Wright, Editor
It is odd that, at a time when membership in religious institutions is on an extreme decline, employers are experiencing a sharp increase in claims of religious discrimination in the workplace. Charges of religious discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces federal workplace discrimination laws, have increased nearly 10% since 2005 according to Judy Greenwald, a Senior Editor at Business Insurance. Greenwald notes that “two of the biggest issues with regard to religious discrimination claims are accommodations for taking time off for the Sabbath and garb issues, such as Muslim women’s requests to wear head coverings.”
While disputes over head coverings are likely caused by the increase in diverse ethnicity in the workplace, I have observed a different area of religious dispute gaining traction in the workplace, one that appears to be related to the age of our workforce. I am talking about visible body modification – tattoos, body piercings and other modifications such as ear gauges and lip extensions, that are, according to applicants and employees, a manifestation of religious belief.
It is no secret to HR Professionals that, as baby boomers retire in increasingly greater numbers, the bulk of the US workforce is getting younger. Sarah Sladek, author of Rockstars Incorporated (an engaging guide to recruiting folks half your age), notes that by 2015 “we will observe the largest turnover in human capital in history and Generation Y (currently ages 17-30) will outnumber the Baby Boomers in the workforce. This is a substantial change in and of itself considering the Boomer generation has been in power for more than 40 years.”
My point is, that for 40 years, mostly white, mostly Christian folks have been setting employment policy in this country. Now, as a group less tied to organized faith (as established by dropping numbers in adult membership) comes into the workforce, we are experiencing a need for education and flexibility in our idea of what constitutes a religion and how we can accommodate religions while maintaining productivity and brand confidence.
Make no mistake about it. There are an awful lot of 20-somethings with “VBM” (visible body modification). The Church of Body Modification, a federally recognized, tax exempt religious body, has over 5,000 members and is growing. As early as 1997, tattooing was the 6th fastest growing industry in the US according to US News and World Reports – and it hasn’t slowed down since.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center discovered that more than 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. The American Medical Association reports that, as of 2007, 24% of the general US population had a tattoo.
- Surprisingly, as of 2010, the survey found a whopping 60% of all 18-25 year olds believed that having a visible body modification has no impact on their world whatsoever. This belief stands in sharp contrast to that held by 85% of all employers participating in a confidential survey conducted by Vault.com who shared that tattoos and piercings influence a candidate’s chances of being hired by an employer.
- The VBM trend is too new to determine if modified employees suffer long term differentials in salary over the lifetime of their employment. This will undoubtedly prove to be the case as there are an increasing number of workers who have tattoos in “always visible” locations such as on the neck, head and hands. Check out Vault.com’s “person-on-the-street” interviews here. Tattoos, at least are gaining in workplace acceptance.
- But not everyone is fully on-board with VBM. According to the June 18th issue of New Yorker Magazine, film star Mark Wahlburg recently had his VBM – a large tattoo, removed from his neck. Sephora, one of the world’s largest cosmetic retailers, now carries tattoo artist Kat Von D’s line of highly pigmented makeup to help consumers cover up their tattoos.
As I have stated before, this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be legal advice and the opinions expressed are mine alone. You should consult with counsel before making any adverse employment decision and, in fact, you should check with counsel before taking any action based on something you learn over the Internet. Remember, nothing takes the place of advice from an attorney who knows you and your business.