Staff with Visible Tattoos Face Discrimination at Work

26 October 2016

ACAS research suggests that employees with visible tattoos face discrimination in the workplace.

Margaret Mountford, the former right-hand woman of Lord Sugar on the Apprentice, warned that tattoos were “a real problem” for young British people as it significantly erodes their prospects of obtaining and holding down a job. Mountford refused to have her hair washed by a stylist who had a tattoo.

Around one in five people in the UK have a tattoo rising to one in three for young adults. 14% of teachers have tattoos. Some people are completed covered in body art including face, arms and legs whereas others may just have small design on the ankle.

An ACAS study has discovered that negative attitudes towards people with tattoos can influence the recruitment process with employers concerned about how visible tattoos will be perceived by clients and customers.

A person’s tattoos were often seen as being indicative of undesirable character-related attributes during job selection. It is difficult to establish the true level of tattoo discrimination as many employees and job candidates are unaware of the real reason they were denied promotion or a job.

Evidence from ACAS suggests that such discrimination is widespread particularly in the service sector where employees regularly engage with customers. Attending to self-presentation is perceived as enhancing the credibility and trustworthiness of the firm’s product and/or service offering.

Some body art can be advantageous for job prospects especially where companies are seeking to attract a younger customer demographic. They may seek applicants with visible body art because tattoos can help project a youthful brand personality. Tattoos could also be seen positively in some areas of the creative industry where body art could be perceived as a demonstration of creativity and individuality which can be helpful in this sector.

Whilst companies are entitled to have rules around appearance at work, these rules should be based on the law where appropriate and business needs, not managers’ personal preferences.

The ACAS dress code recognises that employers may wish to promote a certain image through their workers, and this can mean asking them to remove piercings or cover tattoos whilst at work. Almost three-quarters of an Xpert HR survey reported that the employer had dress code policies in operation. Tattoos and piercings were allowed in around 41% of the organisations surveyed.

Starbucks reacted to an employee-initiated online petition to allow workers to display tattoos on the condition that the tattoos are tasteful and not visible on the face or throat.

A female worker at a radio station had a tattoo over her foot and ankle. Company policy did not prohibit tattoos but required them to be covered. Because the employee’s action did not constitute discrimination under any protected characteristic her discrimination action could not succeed. She was unable to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal as she had not worked at the radio long enough to sustain an unfair dismissal claim.

An employee with "Everything happens for a reason" on her forearm was dismissed as a waitress in 2013 following complaints from customers. A Next employee complained he had been forced from his job because his employers disliked his 80 tattoos.

Policies which restrict tattoos are commonplace in the UK. The Metropolitan Police bans them on the face, hands and above the collar line, as well as any which are "discriminatory, violent or intimidating". In 2012 music retailer HMV was criticised for issuing guidelines instructing staff to cover up their ink. Airlines frequently place restrictions on tattoos among cabin crew.

Under the Equality Act 2010 tattoos are not a protected characteristic so your employer could potentially legally discriminate against you on the basis that you have a tattoo.

Whilst the disability discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010 cover severe disfigurements (e.g. scars or birthmarks), any disfigurements relating to tattoos which have not been removed or piercings for decorative or non-medicinal purposes are explicitly excluded from the definition of severe disfigurement.

However, there is a grey area around tattoos interacting with religious or cultural practices where there is a risk of discrimination. If your employer has a tattoo policy which makes it a condition of employment then your employer will need to have good business reasons to justify the policy in case it breaches discriminatory legislation.

ACAS has found that banning tattoos in the workplace could result in disgruntled employees and potential legal challenges to employer policies on the grounds that they amount to a breach of human rights. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 protects the right to freedom of expression.

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