Human Resources | December 2014 | By Peter Fabris

Inked and Pierced

Brands consider how employee appearance reflects company.
Quick service restaurant operators are developing new worker dress code rules.
Starbucks recently revised its policy regarding employees with tattoos and piercings. thinkstock

In October, coffee giant Starbucks revised its employee appearance policy that marked some body adornments off limits. The news gave the industry a moment to consider the links between employee dress and branding and morale.

Starbucks baristas previously could not display any facial piercings or tattoos. “I think revisiting that policy is quite smart, because their brand is much more about creativity and free flow of ideas than their current strict appearance policy denotes,” says Leeann Leahy, president of The VIA Agency, a marketing consultancy.

Quick-service brands should periodically revisit employee appearance policies, experts say. Over time, both the brand and its clientele change. “If you go back to the roots of Starbucks, and you look at the segment of coffeehouses as a whole, they are known for interesting characters serving you coffee—people who have dreadlocks, piercings, and tattoos,” says David Lewis, president and CEO of HR firm OperationsInc.

As Starbucks grew, attracting a broader demographic, its employee appearance policy became stricter. But while older guests might find piercings or prominent tattoos off-putting, most of today’s customers may not think twice about a tattooed barista, Lewis says.

It’s important to consider dress codes from the employee’s perspective, he adds. Operators should enforce the dress code consistently to avoid damaging morale, but also, when fashions change, consider an update.

There may, however, be exceptions to such policies, for example, when employee appearance must reflect a restaurant’s particular theme. Johnny Rockets has maintained the same 1940s soda jerk look since opening in the 1980s. Employees wear white uniforms, bow ties, and caps at every location across 27 countries. Beards, tattoos, and unusual piercings would be contrary to the brand image, so they are forbidden.

“We evaluate [the dress code] once a year,” says Paul Nishiyama, vice president of operations. However, the company hasn’t made any significant changes.

Decisions regarding employee appearance codes should support the company image, Leahy says. “Employees are a reflection of the brand,” she says. “The brand has to know what it is and who it stands for. Then people have to decide if they want to be associated with and work for that brand.”


Not only am I in the process of acquiring my Ph. D., I am also an instructor in higher education; I am allowed to express myself tastefully EVEN if it means a nose ring and a few tattoos. The image that Starbucks stands for (or used to) contrasts the current policy for company dress code. When I was acquiring my undergraduate degree, I worked at Starbucks--for FOUR years. I was made to cover a butterfly tattoo on the underside of my arm (barely visible) with 1/2 a sock, if I chose to wear short sleeves. I find this excessive; Starbucks: your policy is outdated. Remember where coffee houses originated--and what they truly stood for! Grow with the times. If you are that hard-up for money because you are worried that tattoos, dreadlocks, and facial piercings are off-putting to SELECT customers, then change your brand and hire business men/ woman to make your drinks--GOOD LUCK WITH THAT ONE.

piercings might be fine, even 'welcome' in a coffee shop but in a restaurant...NOPE. BAD perception when making food!

A nice step forward for tattoo acceptance in the workplace. A bit of a dated policy to start with though.

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