Just over two years ago, we published a blog on whether someone who was dismissed from her role for refusing to cover up a tattoo on her foot had any legal recourse. At that time, the answer was “no”. The employer’s action did not constitute discrimination under any protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and the worker did not have sufficient service to be able to bring an unfair dismissal claim.
But are things changing? As reported on the BBC, negative attitudes towards tattoos may be outdated.
The BBC report covered Acas’ recently published Research Paper on dress codes and appearance at work, which includes attitudes and practices relating to body modifications, ie tattoos and piercings.
It found that opinions are still quite strong in relation to visible tattoos or piercings, particularly in smaller and more traditional organisations. Some employers object to tattoos and piercings as they feel that anything outside perceived “dress norms” does not project a professional image of the organisation.
Others believe that visible tattoos raise questions about a person’s judgement, and their ability to conform to the expectations and demands of work. Explaining why an applicant was ultimately unsuccessful at job interview, one manager said:
“…it’s about professionalism, isn’t it?… I said ‘well how stupid are you, at what point did you think a
tattoo on your head was going to be acceptable?’…”
But not all organisations take such a view. At Starbucks, employees started an online petition aimed at changing the organisation’s tattoo policy and employees are now allowed to display tattoos, as long as they are ‘tasteful’ and not visible on the face or throat.
Tattoos generally do seem to be more socially acceptable than they used to be and, as Stephen Williams, head of equality at Acas says, a dress code that restricts people with tattoos might mean companies are missing out on talented workers.
And not only talented workers but specifically talented younger workers.
While a Yougov poll in 2015 suggested that nearly a fifth of all UK adults have tattoos, for young people up to one third have a tattoo. A ban on tattoos may therefore have a disproportionate effect on younger workers, which could lead to claims for indirect age discrimination.
Employers may, therefore, want to consider relaxing their dress codes (and their assumptions) about people with tattoos in the interests of fostering a talented and diverse workforce and avoiding possible claims.