Is it fair to have restrictions on tattoos at work?

It is fair to say the number of individuals with visible tattoos has increased in recent years, where once this form of body art was typically reserved for rock stars and footballers it is now equally as common to see a banker or an accountant sporting their own tattoo.

Despite their increased popularity, a previous survey by LinkedIn has suggested businesses may be hesitant to employ an individual with a tattoo. In fact, four-fifths of respondents admitted they had rejected a candidate because they had a visible tattoo, whilst a further two-fifths claimed to have done so due to their organisation’s strict dress code.

Applicants who are rejected on this basis are likely to be unhappy, however, as having a tattoo is not a protected characteristic, these individuals will generally be unable to claim discrimination for their choice of body art. Having said this, employers should be prepared to objectively justify any claims of indirect discrimination that may stem from having dress codes that prohibit visible tattoos, especially if the claimant’s tattoo can be linked back to their religious beliefs.

Employers with these dress code restrictions are typically able to rely on the need to project a smart and professional image to their customers as a justification. For example, the Metropolitan police ban tattoos on the face, hands and above the collar line, as well as any which are discriminatory violent or intimidating. Having said this, Acas have previously commented on what they perceive to be an outdated ‘image bias’ towards tattoos.

After all, a recent YouGov poll has revealed that 1 in 5 adults in the UK have a tattoo, which means employers could be ruling out a significant number of capable candidates by rejecting applicants on this basis. Although employers understandably have an image to protect it is generally advisable to weigh this up against the skills and professional qualities of the candidate. Making snap decisions about an individual due to their appearance is also counterproductive, and employers should actively look at ways to reduce the impact of unconscious bias during recruitment.

Employers should also consider where a compromise may be suitable in certain situations, for example if dress codes forbid ‘visible tattoos’ perhaps candidates with full length tattoo sleeves could be asked to cover this up during working time with a long-sleeved shirt. However, similar solutions will admittedly be more difficult when it comes to those with hand or neck tattoos.

In conclusion, whilst employers will be free to implement their own rules on tattoos in the workplace it is really worth considering whether any restrictions are necessary for the nature of the role, or purely managerial preference. As with any workplace policy, employers are encouraged to examine and review dress codes on a regular basis to ensure they remain relevant and fit for purpose. Therefore, adapting any overly restrictive policies may be necessary to keep up with changing social trends.

Suggested Resources