Feature Article - April 2003
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Staff Strategies

How to hire, manage and keep great employees despite the generation gaps

By Margaret Ahrweiler

A piercing issue

One area where employers might agree with parents: Appearance issues create strife with Millennials. And body piercings represent the front line of conflict. But according to McIver, employers possess every right to prohibit jewelry in unusual places.

"Employers are allowed to set standards, and part of that subset is grooming," McIver says. "These standards can vary from one group to another, so that a health club can set one grooming code for the receptionists, one for the locker-room attendants and one for the trainers. The only glitch is that you have to enforce these uniformly between women and men."

Again, written policies, clearly explained, are tantamount to avoiding conflicts—and lawsuits.

Body piercings are an especially hot topic in the aquatics and fitness industries where infection and the risks of avulsion, or skin tears, can pose a hazard. This led the New England Aquatics Network to create a position statement on Life Guards and Body Jewelry last year, says Robin Benton, a founding member and executive officer of the group. In it, the group states, "Navel, nipple, eyebrow and tongue piercings are never appropriate for lifeguards on duty." It also advises members to beware prospective guards' claim that their skin décor cannot be removed: simply untrue. It notes that many-holed staff can use plastic retainers, or "invisible jewelry," which prevent holes from closing. They protrude on only one end, making it easier to prevent avulsions.

Yet positions within the industry vary. Lifeguards at Soak City cannot wear any form of body piercing, Rehnborg says, in keeping with parent Knott's Farm's stringent appearance code. But 30 miles down Int. Hwy. 5, Laguna Niguel has no prohibitions.

"This is Southern California, and these kids have tattoos and body piercings," she says. "I'm not going to turn away an employee who wants a job, has good skills and is going to show up on time just because he has an eyebrow pierce." She notes that she's never witnessed an avulsion or other incident with a piercing with her guard staff of 25.

Similarly, Gold's Gym national policy allows all employees to wear jewelry as long as it is "minimal and tasteful," but allows club general managers to set each gym's own standards on body piercings and tattoos, according to Gold's Berthay.

In general, tattoos, seem to have gained greater acceptance than piercings. Several managers noted that body art has become popular even with Baby Boomers and seems particularly prevalent in aquatics: Elite swimmers frequently sport a discreet dolphin or sea turtle even in the seemingly conservative Midwest.

Ironically, these appearance issues tend to stick in the management craws of Baby Boomers more than older workers. In fact, one of the strongest positives associated with the newest work generation is its ability to mesh with older employees.

A Piercing Dichotomy

Are pierced ears a chick thing? Courts have consistently upheld employers' right to prevent men from wearing earrings while allowing them for women, according to labor lawyer Tex McIver.

Do you think this is fair? Do you let your male staff wear earrings? What other hot topics of employee conduct have you encountered? Let us know at editor@recmanagement.com.

"They're the grandpa you can talk to when you hate your parents," Wendover reasons. Older and younger workers share parallel values, and mature workers seem to enjoy the silliness of the youngest group, while their very presence tempers it somewhat, Dittmar adds, and both groups emphasize the social aspect of work.

But that social side of work can get out of hand with Millennials, notes lawyer McIver. With the explosion of sexual harassment litigation, he has been counseling recreation and fitness industry clients to use a strong preventive tool: anti-fraternization policies that prohibit dating between employees and with customers.

"In a health club or a pool, with young, fit people, it can be a highly charged atmosphere," he says. "With a no-dating policy you can't be left with the excuse that somebody thought she was interested." Gold's Gym enforces a nonfraternization policy for those reasons. It also was put in place to avoid conflicts that could arise from complaints of favoritism, along with problems in supervision or security, Berthay says.

As with any employee policies, uniform enforcement and constant vigilance will make it work, no matter the age group.

"You have basic principles on how to deal with people consistently, and it applies regardless of age," Shenker says.