Improving inclusivity by allowing tattoos

Virgin Atlantic has announced the lifting of their ban on employees displaying tattoos. The airline’s dress code update comes ahead of its next recruitment drive, where it hopes to attract more applicants by championing individuality and improve equality and diversity throughout the organisation.  

Previously, uniformed employees were banned from displaying tattoos, so had to cover them with long-sleeves, plasters or make-up. But, with reports suggesting that one in three young people have a tattoo, a policy such as this significantly restricts an employer’s access to key talent. In most settings, a tattoo will have no impact on an employee’s ability to complete their duties, so requiring them to be covered could be unreasonable, albeit lawful. However, it does create somewhat of a grey area, especially if the tattoo has religious significance or has been used to cover a disfigurement, as these can both be protected characteristics under the Equality Act (2010). As such, an employee who is placed at a disadvantage could raise claims for indirect discrimination and constructive dismissal. In such cases, employers must be able to objectively justify why a policy banning visible tattoos is necessary.  

Virgin Atlantic’s policy change may encourage other organisations to review their current stance on this issue. Employers should look at the needs of their business and consider whether it is necessary to implement a tattoo ban. If employees are predominately office based, then is there a legitimate reason to restrict visible tattoos or is it simply a management preference? Even where the role is mainly customer facing, a strict dress code may not always be required, and could be updated to reflect modern views on tattoos. In some sectors, such as arts and entertainment, tattoos are even seen as an advantage as they signify creativity.  

Tattoos are an expression of individuality, so allowing staff to publicly display them promotes a culture which embraces differences and champions diversity. Such a workplace will benefit from a more motivated and engaged workforce, with increased productivity and reduced turnover rates.  

However, where a tattoo may cause offence or upset, it is understandable that an employer may ask that it is covered during working hours. Despite relaxing it’s rules, Virgin Atlantic has remained clear that offensive tattoos are not permissible. It is currently reviewing whether to lift the ban on face and neck tattoos so, for the moment, this remains in place.  

Industry experts have recognised that employers will project their brand image through their employees, who are ultimately “the face of the business,” so accept that some rules relating to tattoos are reasonable. It is recommended that any requirements to cover tattoos at work should be outlined in a written dress code or appearance code, which is communicated to all members of staff. The dress code should include, where relevant, any variations to the rules, such as dress down days or Casual Fridays. This allows employees to know what is and isn’t expected of them, so they are aware of the company’s stance if they were to consider getting a new tattoo.  

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