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A Tradition of Working for the Dental Profession

The Chicago Dental Society was organized in 1864 and incorporated in 1878. The objective of the Chicago Dental Society is to encourage the improvement of the health of the public, to promote the art & science of dentistry and to represent the interests of the members of the profession and the public that it serves.

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  • October 4, 2016

Do you show your tattoos?

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For the last couple years, I’ve really enjoyed our family vacations. We’ve seen some wonderful sights and had great experiences, in Michigan, in Boston and Maine, in Montana.

But for all that sightseeing around the country, I’ve had one striking thought: practically everyone has a tattoo except me.

I don’t want a tattoo, mind you, but I can’t get over how many people have them. Sometimes lots of them.

Sure, you can say it’s a generational thing. According to study by the Pew Research Center in 2010, nearly four of 10 Millennials have a tattoo. About half of those with tattoos have two to five, and 18% have six or more. Piercings are popular too. Nearly one out of four Millennials have a piercing – eyebrow, lip, cheek – in some place other than an earlobe.

But a Harris International Poll found that tattoos have made inroads among the older set too. According to the Harris poll, 38% of 30-somethings have a tattoo, and 27% of 40- to 49 year olds have one (or more).

Younger “new dentists” and dental students, writing frankly in an online forum on StudentDoctor.net, capture the inner and cultural conflict over tattoos in a relatively conservative field.

“I want a tattoo,” wrote one student, capturing the sentiment of several. “It sucks that I would have to get it in a (discreet) spot as a health professional. I would want people to see the art.”

But another student had a pragmatic view. “I personally don’t care what people do with their body, and my personal dentist has a tattoo, but remember that a large portion of your patient pool is coming from an era when tattoos and piercings on men were relegated to the dregs of society. While this image is rapidly changing, it is still far from being completely out of the collective conscious. So sock it up, cover your tattoos and take out your piercings for work. Remember, you got those tattoos because YOU like them, not so everyone else had to see them.”

Facing similar uncertainty, a dental assistant instructor who got push-back from some of her younger trainees over tattoos on their necks, arms and hands as well as piercings on their face wrote DentistryIQ for some advice.

“I coach and try to mentor the students on proper professionalism for the dental office, and I am met with resistance,” the instructor wrote. “Am I wrong, or have things changed that much?”

Shelley Renee, a human resources consultant from Valatie, NY, responded that the focus should be on image and safety.

“The image must portray to all patients that they are in the care of competent and trustworthy individuals. Inking is not congruent with the dental focus of removing stains and whitening. Also, dangly jewelry in piercings may pose a risk of injury or cross contamination.

“The bottom line is that dentists have the right to require dress that reflects the professionalism of the practice,” she said. “Even though there has been an increase in acceptance for some job markets, most job interview advice columns strongly advise all interviewees to cover inking and remove all piercings except for ears. The traditional advice holds true. Conservative attire befits respect in the dental industry.”

That said, how does the more conservative and/or traditional employer draw a clear line? Experts say you should set clear policies early.

“Take a step back and consider very carefully just what policies you want to put in place,” advices Ginny Hegarty, a human resources expert.

“Are you okay with a moderate butterfly or flower tattoo?” she wrote in a piece for Modern Dental Network. “How about symbols or text? Eyebrow or nose rings versus lip or tongue piercings? Are there specific industry or culture considerations in play that you need to address? Is there a safety issue to be considered? Could a piercing interfere with equipment and potentially harm to an employee? Safety trumps most other reasons or requests. Be sure to document the reasoning behind your decisions.”

Consider that different positions in your practice may have different requirements based on specific job duties too, she said.

How do I feel about health care professionals with tattoos? I may dodge that question, but the advice for dental practices is, as usual, to be prepared and create policies for your office so everyone knows and can abide by the expectations.

Following is the leading legal advice being offered through the Society of Human Resource Management:

  1. Be very clear and have your policy in writing.
  2. Do away with all across-the-board bans as religious accommodations and discrimination issues may come into play.
  3. Don’t be too restrictive or you risk missing out on talented candidates.
  4. Be specific but allow for some discretion. You can say no visible tattoos or only small tattoos, but don’t get into stating acceptable dimensions or styles.
  5. Be aware that some religions prohibit the covering up of religious tattoos so you’ll need to be careful in applying a “no visible tattoos” policy.
  6. Apply your policy consistently. You can’t randomly allow one person to have a nose ring or tattoo and not another unless religious accommodations are being considered. Your position will be hard to defend if it’s applied arbitrarily.
  7. Offensive images can be banned. However, whether on tattoos, jewelry, clothing, pictures, or email, they must all be dealt with in the same way to prevent creating harassment claims or a hostile work environment. Offensive is offensive in all forms.
  8. Sometimes the cover-ups attract more negative attention than the original body art. Are Band-Aids acceptable, or do you prefer opaque makeup, clothing, or bracelets?
  9. Tattoos and piercings are only two issues that must be clearly defined in a solid appearance policy from your Policy & Procedures manual. Now is a great time to address your appearance policy and how it also deals with perfume, body odor, cleanliness, cleavage, and provocative dress.
  10. Given that most hiring managers are still part of the older GenX or Baby Boomer generation, prejudice toward body art is still a reality to be dealt with. Be sure to train your managers on the law. 
The views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of the Chicago Dental Society. CDS presents Front Desk, a column addressing problems dentists and staff members experience in the office. Front Desk is prepared by Stephanie Sisk, a freelance journalist. Suggestions? Email topics you wish to be covered to the Chicago Dental Society.
Photo: Copyright Milkos / Shutterstock.com

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