Tattoos in the workplace – taboo or a form of self-expression?

As the younger generation embraces its obsession with body ink, should employers tighten their appearance policies or welcome tattoos as a symbol of self-expression?

From dainty ankle tattoos to tribal armbands and full sleeved cuffs, body art is becoming a social norm as more people embrace self-expression through ink.

For the HR professional, when can employers draw the line against tattoos in the workplace and are such lines even necessary?

HC Online chats to Patricia Ryan, Principal of The Workplace employment lawyers about dress codes, appearance policies and the increasing incidence of ink.

Ms Ryan says employers can avoid issues with unwanted body art by having clear policies stipulating the appearance of employees and requesting that tattoos be covered in the workplace.

“An exception to this would be if the employee could demonstrate that the tattoo was due to their cultural or ethnic origin, such as with Maori persons,” Ms Ryan says. In this case, employers could be exposed to a claim of unlawful discrimination if requesting the employee to cover their tattoo, or refusing to employ them for having visible tattoos.

“In Victoria it is also unlawful to discriminate against employees or prospective employees on grounds of their physical features. However discrimination is permissible in the case of performers and models,” Ms Ryan says.

And while HR departments are often tasked to hire people who fit the ‘image’ of the organization, employers need to be careful they are not enforcing policies which discourage talented (and often younger) people from joining their workforce.

“Organizations need be make sure they are not shooting themselves in the foot by discouraging young people, many of whom are embracing a social and cultural shift towards body art,” Ms Ryan says.

“Creative industries are often quite supportive of body art and individualism and realize that tattoos really don’t affect the ability of a person to do their job.”

This sentiment is echoed by head of talent acquisition for LUSH Australasia Elisia Gray, who told HC Online the company values passion for the brand over physical appearance.

“People in our head office have got blue, purple hair, tattoos and then other people don’t at all. It’s never an issue at LUSH, I don’t know about other workplaces,” she says.

Ms Gray says LUSH is a safe place for employees to express their individuality. “It isn’t something we’d ever want to hold someone back from,” she says.

QLD property manager Alicia Taylor, commonly known by her pin-up model moniker Scarlet Tinkabelle, says she started getting heavily tattooed around 8 years ago and has felt the pressure to cover up.

“I've been a Property Manager for 12 years, and I was under the impression and/or requested to cover my tattoos in the workplace,” she told HC Online.

“I chose to get tattooed and kept in mind I would need to cover up for an office environment in doing so. I have been fortunate that my personality, presentation and experience have been recognized and therefore the stigma removed and then the need for covering up also removed,” Ms Taylor says.

“However it is my belief that if you present well and appropriate to the profession you are in, have a confident person and can do your job well, these things should not matter.” 

She says tattoos are a personal choice and shouldn’t have negative stigma attached to them.

“I do know from experience and friends who also are tattooed heavily, that there is still a negative ghost trailing behind those with tattoos, such as workplaces being reluctant to hire or requesting they be hidden still,” she says.

While employers may feel pressured to move with the times, a recent study by NSW’s Macquarie University titled: Taboo tattoos? A study of the gendered effects of body art on consumers’ attitudes toward visibly tattooed front line staff, found clients and customers can have ‘negative thoughts’ about dealing with tattooed staff face-to-face.

The study, by Chris Baumann, Andrew Timming and Paul Gollan, used software-altered images to examine public reactions to mechanics and surgeons. An earlier UK-based study by Andrew Timming, Visible Tattoos in the Service Sector: A New Challenge To Recruitment and Selection, focused on the impact of visible tattoos on the chance of employment.

His study showed that while visible tattoos have a negative effect on selection, the extent of employer prejudice is mitigated by: the location of the tattoo, the type of organization or industry, whether the role involved dealing with customers and the genre of the tattoo.

Mr Timming’s report shows how employer prejudice against tattoos is also driven largely by the perception of the hiring managers of consumer expectations regarding body art in the workplace.

Ms Ryan says employers are entitled to have a dress code and this should be reasonable in light of the nature of the job the person is required to do.

“If you are working in a warehouse with no contact with the public then it shouldn’t be an issue. If the company wants to provide an image of conservatism or hygiene or cleanliness, then this may be a different story,” Ms Ryan says.

“For example, if you are working as the first point of customer contact, such as at the reception desk, then it may be reasonable for the company to have a dress code, as they are trying to present a certain type of image,” she says. “Therefore it might not be unreasonable to have a dress code that stipulates no visible body art.”

She says employers without a clear dress code policy will face difficulty when trying to request a tattooed employer to cover up. HR departments should ensure these policies are presented to the employee at the time of recruitment to make it clear what the requirements are.

However, she says employers may need to look past outdated social limitations and focus on the ability of the employee to perform his or her role in the company, instead of on physical appearance.

“Employers should really ask themselves what they are actually trying to achieve and what impact might it have on people wanting to come and work for this company,” Ms Ryan says.

“I think tattoos are becoming more acceptable and more employers, particularly managers responsible for recruiting, are sensible enough to see that its part of the modern world and quite popular with younger people.”

Recent articles & video

Alphabet layoffs later this year to be 'much smaller in scale': reports

Elon Musk: Jobs to be optional in 'benign' AI future

2 in 3 Australians OK with date change for Australia Day

Former security services firm fined for failing to act on Compliance Notice

Most Read Articles

1 in 8 new hires leaving during probation: report

FWC finds early notice of end to fixed-term contract amounts to dismissal

Spotless entities plead guilty to long service leave underpayments