Tattoo Discrimination: Forcing Employees To Cover Up

In modern Britain body art is largely viewed as part of mainstream fashion and a lifestyle choice people of all backgrounds choose. The days of tattoos being confined to specific subcultures have long since past. It’s now believed that that 20% of Britons have a tattoo.

However, despite this change in attitude, many employers still have a negative view of body art and prefer their employees to cover up tattoos where possible. Other employers will simply not hire someone with tattoos. This has resulted in a lot of skilled workers, usually of the younger generation, missing out on the employment opportunities they could otherwise achieve.

Margaret Mountford, the revered lawyer and businesswoman known for her appearances on The Apprentice, views employer attitudes towards body art as “a real problem” for young people. This concern is supported by the sheer number of younger people with tattoos, which is now a third of Britons aged below 30.

The exact nature of this employer concern is rooted in the belief that body art is somehow unruly and people with tattoos are somehow less responsible, which in turn reflects badly on a company’s image and shakes client faith in the brand, leading many businesses to request their employees wear clothing concealing their body art.

Employer advice group Acas is currently campaigning to encourage firms to reassess their view of body art and the employee dress codes involved, as well as encouraging employer and employees alike to consider whether forcing body art to be covered is actually a form of workplace discrimination.

Stephen Williams, the Head of Equality at Acas, recognises employer concern over tattoos but feels a fair balance for what is deemed acceptable needs to be undertaken: “Businesses are perfectly within their right to have rules around appearance at work but these rules should be based on the law where appropriate, and the needs of the business, not managers’ personal preferences.”

Williams also believes businesses experience a loss when skilled staff with tattoos are not employed as a result of this so called ‘ink discrimination‘: “A dress code that restricts people with tattoos might mean companies are missing out on talented workers.”

A dismissive attitude towards tattoos in the workplace is by no means a recent occurrence, but it is only now coming under the microscope due to so many British citizens embracing body art and a number of well publicised employment law cases. In 2015 a trainee was sent home on her first day of work because the Catholic School she was teaching at objected to her tattoos.

Many may agree that such employer attitudes are justified if the tattoos in question are an example of extreme body art, but there have been cases where an overreaction is abundantly clear, such as when a business consultant was recently dismissed from her job for having a butterfly tattoo measuring 4cm on her foot.

If tattoos are to be considered a personal form of self-expression, any effort to censor them in the workplace may actually be an act of discrimination. However, this stance leads to further questions of whether there are certain types of tattoos that should be acceptable over others. Is it okay if controversial phrases or symbols are allowed to be displayed if an employee believes in them? Examples of this could include imagery of religious significance to an individual. But what happens if such potentially conversational expression then causes offence to other workers?

Should tattoos perhaps be considered a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010? The rules on body modification as a characteristic are not clearly defined, but if a single set of rules were enforced for all businesses there would certainly be some industries seeking stricter criteria while others prefer a more relaxed approach. A lot of discussion on the subject is yet needed.