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When it comes to tattoos, we all have our own personal opinions about whether we like them or don’t, but as an employer what are your rights? There are currently no employment laws about specifically tattoos in the workplace, this means that employers have a lot of discretion. For example, if you refuse someone work because of a tattoo, this does not qualify as discrimination.

The Equality Act of 2010 states that for an action to be considered discrimination, it must fall under one of the nine characteristics listed in the Act. Only then will it be considered unlawful, under the Act tattoos are not one of the nine listed features.

If you believe that a candidate has inappropriate tattoos for your workplace, you can choose to reject the candidate for that reason. In addition, if a prospective employee attended an interview with their tattoo covered and then revealed it after they got the job, then as an employer you are legally entitled to rescind the offer of employment.

Tattoo statistics
According to a recent UK survey by YouGov one in three working people have a tattoo, and 13% of this group have at least one visible tattoo on their head, face, neck, forearms, wrists or hands – that’s around 1.4 million people. People between the ages of 25 and 54 are the age group most likely to be inked. Attitudes to tattoos vary by age and are changing all the time. Some major employers including the police and Virgin Atlantic have relaxed their policies on visible tattoos over the last few years. Most people don’t see them unprofessional, unless they are on the face or neck, distracting, or offensive. And many employers are keen to point out that just because someone has visible tattoos, which can’t be covered up, doesn’t mean that they are unsuitable for all positions, perhaps just some of the more public facing roles.

Understanding is key
Whatever situation you are in, we recommend that you engage with prospective staff on the subject. It’s worth remembering that people choose to ink their bodies for different reasons. In some cases, tattoos can be part of someone’s religious beliefs – particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. As an employer, it’s entirely up to you as whether or not tattoos fit with your company image. But do not judge a book by a cover and don’t let any unconscious bias take over the decision making.

Policies can help
If you are unsure how to proceed, we strongly advise that you have a dress code which details the standards you expect. Alternatively, if your current dress policy needs updating to reflect tattoos, then we urge you to do so.
These types of codes/policies provide a framework for staff on what to wear to work. Usually, they imply that employees wear suitable, acceptable and appropriate clothing to do the job. In there you should clearly set out your stance on visible tattoos and explain why you may have imposed restrictions.

Of course, different industries/sectors will have different understandings of what is appropriate, and if you want staff who deal with the public to conform to a no visible tattoo policy then you must make it clear and of course enforce it fairly.

Finally, if you do have a strict tattoo policy, it might deter good candidates from wanting to work for you. In difficult economic times, such as now, when many businesses are struggling to find suitably qualified staff, it might be worth asking whether you really want to be seen to be imposing additional recruitment barriers?

How can we help?
If you are struggling to write a suitable dress code/policy, or would like help to train your managers to recognise, acknowledge and overcome their unconscious biases (which we all have) so they can make better evidence-based decisions about who to recruit, then please email caroline.robertson@actifhr.co.uk