Tattoos in the workplace - the debate continues

Tattoos in the workplace - the debate continues


Author: Helen Burgess

Last month we looked at the issue of tattoos in the workplace. The debate has raged on, with the most recent case being of a tattooed teaching assistant.

She was told to cover up her tattoos on her hands, arms and neck and allegedly sent away on the first day of her new job. She claims her employers 'prejudiced' her 'because they could see a few tattoos'.

Conversely, the army has decided that neck and hand tattoos are now allowed, as they have become '.more acceptable in society over the last decade'. The army also claims tattoos of this nature have 'no adverse impact on operational effectiveness', leading them to relax their tattoo policy.

So, should workplaces care about tattoos any more?

The legal answer

The simple answer is that it depends on which sector you are working in - a general perception might be that more creative industries may be more receptive to body art, but those who are employed in more formal or client facing environments, may not be.

An employer spends time and/or money building a reputation, which is then bolstered by an image. If the image of a tattooed person does not fall in line with that image and reputation, it could be grounds not to engage that person or even to dismiss an existing employee where in getting the tattoos they have contravened an existing policy which specifically states that tattoos are not permitted or must not be visible at work.

So, what about employees' rights? Employees have no stand alone claim or protection against being dismissed or not engaged because they have a tattoo. However, an employee with at least 2 years' service cannot be dismissed unfairly. Employers will therefore need to consider how they introduce any new policy into the workplace bearing in mind that existing employees may already have tattoos.

In addition, certain religions and philosophical beliefs may encourage or even require tattoos (whether temporary or permanent) as a commitment to the particular faith or belief. An outright ban on tattoos at work could therefore result in a religious discrimination claim from any disciplined or dismissed employee who has a tattoo for religious or belief reasons.

The Equality Act does however expressly exclude tattoos (and body piercings) from being protected from disability discrimination as a severe disfigurement.

Practical tips for businesses

1. Amend or update your dress code policy - Set out your position clearly at the outset to include the organisation's position on tattoos considering the following:

  • are visible tattoos acceptable?
  • do they have to be limited in size?
  • will only offensive tattoos be prohibited?
  • will your policy differentiate between customer-facing roles and back-office roles?

2. Consider process and existing employees - if you are introducing a new policy on tattoos consider how you will introduce this if existing employees already have visible tattoos (bearing in mind that removal is likely to be costly and difficult).

3. Be flexible - be willing to consider the employee's reasons for getting the tattoo and adjust your policy accordingly.

Workplace thinking on the acceptance of tattoos is slow to take hold in certain sectors - and so the debate of 'to tattoo or not to tattoo' at work rumbles on.


This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

About the author

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Helen Burgess


03700 86 5028

Helen heads the employment team in Nottingham and is well-versed in the specialist area of employment / labour law, advising HR professionals, in-house counsel, directors and managers on human resource and employment law issues. She has particular experience of TUPE advice, tribunals, business immigration, collective and union issues, whistle blowing, settlement agreements & terminations and executive appointment & exits.

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