Tattoos in the workplace: dress codes and visible ink

As employers like Virgin Atlantic relax their policies on visible tattoos in the workplace, Nicola Cockerill examines the benefits of redrafting dress codes to make them more ink-friendly and discusses the legal issues that can arise.

The popularity of tattoos in the UK shows no sign of dwindling. In 2015 statistics showed that 30% of 25 to 39-year-olds have at least one tattoo on their body, 21% for those aged between 40-59 and 9% for those aged over 60 years. More recently, a 2018 survey by YouGov found that 40% of people in the UK had at least one tattoo.

Given just how much of the nation's workforce now have tattoos, is it still morally or ethically right for employers to ask their employees to cover up, or to even outright refuse to employ anyone displaying visible tattoos?

Here we review what impact an employer's opinions on the matter can have on the recruitment process, and whether or not it is lawful to make such decisions purely based on a like, or dislike, of tattoos in the workplace.

When YouGov looked into the attitudes that people have towards tattoos it found that only 36% thought negatively about those with tattoos, while 44% said that it made absolutely no difference to them at all.

However, when The Knowledge Academy delved a bit deeper in 2019, asking specifically about people with tattoos in the workplace, the results were a little different.

Asking a sample of 1,265 people the question "Do you prefer employees with a tattoo?" alongside a wide range of professions, the answers highlighted just how much context counts when people consider their opinions on tattoos.

Generally, those working in the creative, beauty and leisure industries were still viewed favourably if they had tattoos on display. For example, a fashion designer with tattoos achieved a 65% positivity rating.

It was a different story for white-collar professions or office workers, however, with 75% preferring MPs, doctors (68%) and lawyers (63%) without tattoos.

The location of the visible tattoo may also be another consideration for an employer. For example, whether the tattoo is located on the face, necks, hands, arms (upper or lower) may also affect how acceptable it is deemed to be.

Bearing these differing attitudes in mind, employers must consider in what instances they can or should request that employees cover their tattoos in the workplace, and even then, whether they are legally able to do so.

What can an employer do about tattooed employees?

There are currently no specific employment laws in the UK that deal with the issue of tattoos, meaning an employer may be within their rights to reject a prospective employee for a role on the basis of them having a visible tattoo.

Acas, however, warns against this. Its 2016 update to dress code guidance warned that taking a negative stance toward tattoos could lead to employers missing out on good candidates during the recruitment process.

Police forces across the UK have different rules but have traditionally been very strict on their policies regarding visible tattoos. However, recently they have reflected on Acas' advice, and relaxed their rules.

In 2018 the Metropolitan Police, having been traditionally strict on its tattoo policy, relaxed its rules on tattoos at work in an attempt to attract more recruits.

In certain scenarios, of course, the risk of missing out on talented employees will have to be considered alongside the public's attitude towards visible tattoos. These are generally tattoos that are above the shoulders or below the elbows.

To manage expectations, it is advisable for employers to have a dress code policy in place. If well drafted, this will ensure that it is clear what the employer's standards are and what the employee is required to adhere to in terms of dress and appearance while at work, including when visible tattoos should be covered up.

The policy should include a business rationale for why these decisions have been taken. For example, the employer may argue that the presence of visible tattoos would be detrimental to their business or create a negative impression in the minds of prospective clients.

Tattoos in the workplace: dismissals

Similar principles should be applied when dismissing an employee who gets a tattoo while in employment too. Although tattoos are not a protected characteristic in the UK's Equality Act, if the tattoo has a meaning relating to one of the protected characteristics - for example, a religious connotation - then this could give rise to an argument that the employee has been treated less favourably on grounds of religion and give rise to a discrimination claim.

Furthermore, if that employee has worked for the business for two years or more, then there may also be grounds for a claim of unfair dismissal.

Dress code policies need to be applied fairly and consistently, on a case-by-case basis, with individual circumstances considered to minimise the risk of discriminating against anyone.

A relevant example might be an employer dismissing a female employee with a visible tattoo, but not a male employee. Such action could give rise to discrimination claims against the employer on grounds of sex.

While societal attitudes toward tattoos are important to many businesses, employers should be cautious when using this as grounds for dismissal. Often the question of whether or not a tattoo is offensive or inappropriate is subjective and the employer's view may not be held by the rest of society. For example, a symbol of the occult may be offensive to someone of the Catholic faith, but may not to be to someone of another religion or who is non-religious.

An employer may want to instead ask themselves whether there is a genuine business reason for prohibiting visible tattoos in the workplace or whether it is actually a reflection of their own tastes and preconceptions.

Regardless of an employer's opinion, considering the current shortage of available candidates in the labour market, it is important to remain open-minded about these matters. Having a more inclusive culture will make any business far more attractive and assist a business in both attracting new talent and retaining their existing talent. After all, a tattoo does not define how skilled or capable a person is to do a role for which they are employed.