BROOKSVILLE - It started when a firefighter showed up for work with what his boss considered an offensive tattoo.
Human Resources Director Cheryl Marsden didn't elaborate but said it prompted her to revise the county employee dress code to better regulate the wearing of jewelry and tattoos. It comes before county commissioners for consideration Tuesday.
Marsden said it's about projecting a professional image while dealing with the public. But a union official believes this has the potential to backfire in the county's face.
Specifically, the revised policy states: "Jewelry worn by employees shall be conservative and not offensive or detract from a professional image."
Marsden said it would be up to the employee's supervisor to determine what is considered non-conservative or offensive.
For example, Marsden said ear gauges (or plugs) used as jewelry may fit into the category of jewelry that could detract from a professional image.
But Dan Oliver, union steward, said the county's revised dress code policy restricts personal expression and is too subjective because it is based on individual supervisors' interpretations of "offensive."
"If it doesn't affect (employees') job ability, why would you even care?" Oliver asked. "We've got more important things to worry about."
These days, tattoos are becoming commonplace in society and people, especially the young, are "tattooed from head to foot," Oliver said.
"What are you going to do, limit their job ability because they have a tattoo?" he asked.
And as for ear gauges, Oliver said, he doesn't find them offensive at all.
"If people want to do that, that's their prerogative," he said.
The revised dress code policy also contains this added language: "Tattoos that display gang signs, nudity or other sexually offensive content, inappropriate symbols that advocates (sic) prejudice or discrimination, or that promote violence or drug usage must be concealed at all times while at work."
The policy adds that "nothing in this policy prevents supervisors from requiring employees who interact with the public to cover visible tattoos or wear clothing to cover tattoos that they deem inappropriate for their specific position."
Marsden said that does not mean that employees with conservative or innocent-looking tattoos must cover up.
But it would be a judgment call on supervisors' part to determine if the tattoo crosses the line of offensiveness, Marsden said.
The whole idea behind this revision is for all 766 county employees to dress appropriately and maintain a professional image on the job, according to the revised policy statement.
Marsden said she sent the dress code to John Sholtes, business agent for Teamsters Local Union 79, and he said nothing about the revisions.
County Commissioner Dave Russell said he realizes it's a fine line between an employee's personal expression and what is deemed offensive but he believes there is enough flexibility in the policy to avoid problems.
"It at least attempts to set a threshold for being able to control to some degree (the) image we're trying to project to the public," Russell said.
If a disagreement arises between a supervisor and an employee about what is considered "conservative" jewelry or "offensive content," then those cases can be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Under the new policy, supervisors are responsible for monitoring their employees' tattoos and jewelry. Employees who fail to follow the policy "should be counseled and subject to disciplinary actions," including leaving the premises to change or remove the offensive or inappropriate jewelry or find clothes that cover the tattoos, the revision states.
They will not be compensated for the time they take off to make the changes, according to the policy.
Marsden said Hernando County Fire District also has a jewelry section in its employee contract.
And the department's policy on jewelry is even more restrictive.
"For their own personal safety, all personnel are encouraged to refrain from wearing jewelry while on-duty," that policy states.
Any jewelry normally worn above the neck is prohibited, including earrings, ear bands, nose rings and tongue rings.
"Wedding and engagement rings are discouraged, but allowed, providing that they are safe and do not adversely affect the employee's performance of duty," the fire department's policy states. For example, sharp ring edges could cut medical examination gloves.
The fire department does not have any prohibitions against tattoos.