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Originally published September 10, 2014 at 2:34 PM | Page modified September 11, 2014 at 6:15 PM

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Starbucks may let baristas bare their tattoos

The dress code at Starbucks tells baristas in no uncertain terms to keep tattoos under wraps. But the Seattle coffee giant, pondering ways to keep morale high among its front-line troops, could lift the ban on visible body artwork.


Seattle Times business reporter

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The dress code at Starbucks tells baristas in no uncertain terms to keep tattoos under wraps. But the Seattle coffee giant, pondering ways to keep morale high among its front-line troops, could lift the ban on visible body artwork.

In an internal email last week, Chief Operating Officer Troy Alstead said the company is revisiting its “dress code, including the tattoo policy.”

Other items on the agenda for reform include how to structure pay to better reward employees according to their performance and their length of employment, an on-shift “food benefit,” and allowing tipping on the company’s Android app.

A Starbucks spokesman said the email was part of a detailed follow-up to CEO Howard Schultz’s announcement earlier this summer of a campaign to improve staffers’ careers. The company invited its more than 135,000 U.S. employees to comment about the process at a special Facebook page.

Hundreds replied. To the moderator’s question on how to “strike the right balance between self-expression and professionalism,” someone responded: “I live on Capitol Hill, Seattle. It’s rare to see someone without a tattoo here.”

But the same person conceded that random tattoos on the cheeks were too distracting, and gang-related or offensive tattoos “should be covered up.”

Another employee suggested “imposing a size limit on visible tattoos.” Yet another said tattoos “help us connect to fellow tattooed customers.”

The move comes amid recent criticism of Starbucks’ scheduling policies, which the coffee giant has vowed to improve, and a wider national debate about the quality of service-industry jobs. Starbucks says it provides generous benefits such as a subsidy for online college education, retirement benefits and health care for a large majority of its employees.

But its dress code remains pretty uptight. Perfumes and aftershave are not allowed “because the smell affects the taste and aroma of our coffee,” according to a Starbucks human-resources presentation. Jewelry must be discreet, and earrings are limited to two per ear.

But other piercings, including tongue studs, are verboten. As for tattoos, its rule is simple: “tattoos cannot be visible.”

Last month the tattoo policy was challenged when Kristie Williams, a Starbucks employee from Atlanta, created a Coworker.org petition to change the rule. Williams said the long sleeves needed to cover her tattoos get in the way, especially in the summer. More than 21,652 people have signed the online petition.

Sara Frandsen, who worked last year for seven months at a Starbucks in South Lake Union, said that wearing long sleeves to cover her tattoos was not only unsanitary and uncomfortable, but not in tune with modern coffee culture.

“People expect baristas to have tattoos,” said the 25-year old, who has her right arm from wrist to shoulder covered in roses, and her left arm decorated with iconography from the video game Legend of Zelda. She said she was twice voted “partner of the month” while she was at Starbucks, proof that “you can be a good worker and have tattoos.”

Frandsen said she left Starbucks because she disagreed with the tattoo policy and now works at a coffee shop and bakery on Capitol Hill. She added that baristas will perform better if they don’t have to worry about being fired for having a tattoo of “a heart on your elbow.”

Starbucks spokesman Zack Hutson said the company’s review of its tattoo prohibition began before the petition. “We are always actively engaged in discussion with our partners to determine how to make their Starbucks experience better and more valuable to them,” he said. “We know the dress code and tattoo policy is important to them so we are taking a fresh look at it.”

Williams, the Atlanta barista, said in a statement that she was “absolutely thrilled” after seeing the email from Alstead, the COO. “The day I buy my first short-sleeved Starbucks shirt will definitely be a great day.”

Ángel González: 206-464-2250 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gonzalezseattle



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