Making your mark at work - the great tattoo debate

Making your mark at work - the great tattoo debate


Author: Helen Burgess

Following the deportation by the Sri Lankan authorities of a British tourist because she had a Buddha tattoo on her arm, we look at the issue of tattoos in the workplace, and whether employers should, or indeed must, allow employees to have tattoos.

What's the problem?

The issue for the Sri Lankan authorities was the alleged insult to Buddhism caused by the tattoo. However, in the UK the main issue employers tend to have with tattoos is the perceived or actual brand or reputational damage if their tattooed employees are dealing with customers face to face. This in itself highlights the potential tension between what is accepted in society at large (think David Beckham's many and varied tattoos and Cheryl Cole's more recent floral design) versus the workplace given that tattoos are now popular and commonplace in the UK.

Some employers go so far as to include reference to the acceptability of tattoos in their uniform or dress code policy; but can employers really be as prescriptive as to ban employees getting a tattoo or even dismiss or refuse to employ someone who already has a tattoo?

The legal bit

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.

Examples at work.

The Mayor of Osaka allegedly surveyed his 30,000 employees for tattoos and declared that all those with tattoos should find jobs elsewhere. In the UK, the head of the Metropolitan Police took a similar approach by forbidding police officers from getting visible tattoos because they "damaged the professional image" of the force.

Such direct action may seem overly prohibitive and against an individual's personal freedoms to some but necessary to protect the employer's image to others. Which side of the divide do you sit on?

The good news for employers who wish to prohibit or limit visible tattoos in the workplace is that you can do so by considering the points below.

Practical tips

1. Set out your position clearly at the outset - draft (or amend your existing) dress code policy 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 - 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.

Until workplace thinking on the acceptance of tattoos catches up with societal thinking, the question of 'to tattoo or not to tattoo' at work, is likely to remain a controversial issue.

About the author

contact photo

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.

Share this page