Responding to tens of thousands of employee requests, Starbucks recently announced sweeping changes to its tattoo policy, now allowing customer-facing employees to exhibit them everywhere except on the employee’s face. (Previously, employees had to hide tattoos under long clothing, which as you can imagine made things uncomfortable in a long day working over hot steam.) Dress codes, too, have been loosened to allow more expression in accoutrements, scarves, and the like, and piercings have been significantly deregulated.
Are these sensible, bottom-line minded moves Starbucks is making, and that you should consider for yourself as a leader and businessperson? I would argue that the answer to both questions is yes.
Customers are searching for the genuine, the authentic
Today’s customers have a well-developed sense of the genuine, and "genuine" is something that they look for from a brand. I find as a customer service consultant that my clients who allow their employees self-expression on the job–in language, clothing, and, yes, tattoos–are better able to deliver a genuine customer experience that connects with the customer.
Letting employees express their personal style, tats and all
In other words: letting employees revel in their own style is a way to project how genuine you are as a brand to employees and to the customers they support. Your customers—including the important millennial generation that will soon be the dominant breed of consumer in the marketplace—project their own style through their clothing choices, tattoos, and hairstyles, and by and large they're fine with your employees doing the same. As fellow customer service designer Tim Miller expressed it to me recently, in a customer-facing business you should strive for a visible symbiosis between the people working at your establishment because it fits their lifestyle, and the customers doing business with you because it fits their lifestyle.
Choosing the best employees, not just the ones without tattoos and piercing
The second reason is even more important: Employees with the potential to be great all share certain key personality traits (Warmth, Empathy, Teamwork, Conscientiousness, Optimism [WETCO] is my list), but what they don’t share is a particular look. And as an employer, what you’re looking for, praying for, dreaming of, are great employees. Not necessarily Darien-bred or Oxbridge-accented employees (in fact, sometimes these are exactly the kinds of employees you want to avoid in the service industry, if they come with an attitude to match), but employees with the potential to be great in all the empathetic and creative ways that a customer-facing employee needs to be great.
This principle is epitomized by a front-of-house service professional in Bermuda named Nick DeRosa, about whom I've written before. Mr. DeRosa is head doorman at the Fairmont Southampton and one of the greatest front-of-house employees you’ll ever meet.
DeRosa has a tattoo on his neck, all capital letters that says “NICK” so large and visibly that his much-smaller name tag serves pretty much as decoration rather than identification.
Based on an appearance checklist, Nick would hardly be the likeliest candidate to be chosen as the first person guests encounter at this grand luxury hotel, yet they selected him anyway, based on his personality and smile, and it’s clear it’s one of the best personnel decisions the hotel has ever made. Not only is his own performance stellar but he is an inspiration to the employees who work for and with him to up their own game. So I hold the example of DeRosa out to you and ask you this: Why lose a potentially great service person who made a questionable (to you) stylistic choice earlier in their lives—or even made one last night?
Get over your hiring inhibitions
You may get some pushback from whoever your pushbackers are, saying that some studies do show that, all things being equal, an untattooed, unpierced employee is viewed more favorably by mainstream customers than one who is decorated in the modern fashion. But all things are never equal. All employees are not equal. And I would argue that you want the tattooed employee if the tattooed employee is otherwise a future star for you.
Revise your HR guidelines
So: Are you reluctant to (and/or do your hiring guidelines prohibit you to) employ otherwise-qualified candidates who sport tattoos, weird hair, cheek piercings, and the like?
Well, if so, I do understand. I really do. But I want to challenge you to consider that, perhaps, your thinking is out of date. Anachronistic. Please evolve as quickly as you can, for the sake of your employees, your customers, and your bottom line.