Should You Be Asking Your Employees To Cover Their Tattoos?

It’s incredibly likely that the topic of tattoos, and whether they should be visible at work, will come up at your organisation sooner or later.

author

James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.

Date

13 October 2022

Updated

16 July 2024
4 min read
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With 40% of the UK having at least one tattoo, with the 18-34 demographic being the most inked aged group, it’s incredibly likely that the topic of tattoos, and whether they should be visible at work, will come up at your organisation sooner or later.

Regardless of whether you personally like tattoos or not, it’s important to set your company’s expectations on body art.

You should also ensure that your management team understands the rules, which in turn paves the way for open conversation and less chance of conscious or unconscious discrimination or unfair treatment occurring against those who choose to display body art in the form of tattoos.

Read on to understand what the law says about tattoos at work, how to prevent discrimination from occurring, and whether you’re allowed to ban tattoos or request they’re covered up. 

 

Considerations For Setting Policies For Tattoos At Work

Tattoos are an expression of art and personality, and for many people, they are a form of self-identity.

While some employers may see tattoos as a sign of rebellion or unprofessionalism, there is no denying that they are becoming more and more commonplace in society.

With such a large percentage of young people with tattoos, it's not surprising that more and more employers are starting to re-evaluate their policies on body art.

So, if you're an employer wondering if you should start allowing employees to show their tattoos at work, here are a few things to consider when setting your policies on the matter.

 

Are Tattoos Appropriate for Your Business?

The first thing you need to consider is whether or not tattoos are appropriate for your business.

If you have a corporate culture or clientele that values professionalism and traditional values, then it's probably not a good idea to allow employees to show their tattoos at work.

On the other hand, if your business is more casual or creative, then tattoos may be a perfect fit.

 

What Are Your Employees' Thoughts on the Matter?

Another important factor to consider is what your employees think about the idea of showing their tattoos at work.

If you have a large number of employees who are opposed to the idea, it's probably not worth implementing a policy change.

However, if you have employees who are passionate about the idea of being able to show their tattoos at work, then it might be worth considering.

 

What Are the Potential Risks?

There are a few potential risks that come along with allowing employees to show their tattoos at work.

First, there is the risk of offending clients or customers.

If you have a clientele that is not receptive to tattoos, then allowing employees to show their body art could lead to lost business.

Additionally, there is the potential for Employee Relations issues if employees feel that they are being judged or discriminated against based on their appearance.

 

Are Tattoos A Protected Characteristic?

A recent ACAS study found that employers are less likely to recruit people with visible tattoos, as they are perceived negatively by clients and customers, and whilst it is illegal to discriminate against others on the grounds of 9 protected characteristics, having a tattoo isn’t one of them.

Although The Equality Act 2010 does not specifically protect people with body art, and employers have wide discretion in how they deal with workers who have tattoos, employees do, however, have the right not to be discriminated against based on a protected characteristic (which include age, sex, and religion).

As a result, in certain circumstances, wearing religious iconography as part of a tattoo may entitle one to protection from discrimination.

 

What Could Be Considered Acts Of Discrimination?

What could be acts of discrimination at work

Examples of potential discrimination claims at work because of tattoos include:

  • When employers refuse to hire someone because they have a tattoo. This can be based on the employer's personal preferences or on the belief that tattoos are unprofessional.
  • When employees are treated differently because of their tattoos. For example, an employee with a tattoo may be denied a promotion or assigned to a less desirable shift. This type of discrimination can be based on stereotypes or assumptions about people with tattoos.
  • Finally, some employers may require employees to cover up their tattoos while at work. This can be seen as a form of discrimination because it restricts an employee's ability to express themselves.

A decision to terminate a person for cosmetic reasons may also be unjust, depending on the circumstances and whether the employer acted reasonably.

For example, if an employer has a well-defined dress code policy that bans visible tattoos and employs someone who works in a customer-facing position and gets a facial tattoo, dismissal is likely to be justifiable if the employee fails to follow reasonable instructions.

 

How Should Employers Act?

If an employee does have a visible tattoo, you should not automatically assume that it is inappropriate.

Instead, open discussions with the employee, making reference to your relevant policies before making a case-by-case decision on whether to ask them to cover their tattoo when at work.

Whilst the decision on whether to ask your employees to cover their tattoos is ultimately at your discretion, you should consider the following when setting your policies:

  • The ACAS dress code acknowledges that employers may want to project a certain image through their employees, which can mean asking them to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work.
  • Policies which restrict tattoos are commonplace in the UK. For example, The Metropolitan Police bans them on the face, hands and above the collar line, as well as any which are "discriminatory, violent or intimidating".
  • An outright ban on tattoos in the workplace could potentially result in disgruntled employees who raise legal challenges against employer policies because they breach Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1950, which protects the right to freedom of expression.
  • Employers need to be aware of the potential for discrimination claims if they treat employees with visible tattoos differently than those without. For example, if an employer allows employees to show their tattoos but requires employees with visible tattoos to cover them up, that could be considered discrimination.

Whether or not you allow employees to show their tattoos at work is a decision that should be based on what's best for your business.

There is no right or wrong answer, and ultimately, you'll need to weigh the pros and cons before making a decision but always ensure that all employees are aware of the policy and that you treat everyone equally.

 

Next Steps

As you can see, the decision on whether you should be asking your employees to cover their tattoos is a complex one, but ultimately it is yours to make. Whatever you decide, it's important to ensure that your position on tattoos is made clear in your dress code policy.

Please contact us if you would like support with managing and understanding your HR and employer responsibilities towards your workforce.

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