Tattoos in the workplace: Why employers should tread carefully

HRD investigates scenarios where an employer can justifiably raise concerns around tattoos

Tattoos in the workplace: Why employers should tread carefully

A couple of years ago, Chontelle McGoldrick applied for a flight attendant job with Qantas and Emirates, however both airlines turned her down for the same reason – she had an anchor tattooed on the inside of her right ankle.

Despite only being about the size of 10 cent piece, Emirates said their in-flight staff cannot have visible tattoos, while Qantas said all tattoos are to be covered and never visible when in uniform.

McGoldrick said the airlines took the position that some cultures and religions find tattoos offensive and was told to come back when they were completely gone, leaving no scars or marks.

Kellie-Ann McDade, partner, Baker McKenzie, told HRD that there are situations where an employer can justifiably raise concerns around tattoos.

“However, employers must be careful to ensure that they’re only raising issues if they are relevant to an employee's role and affect an employee's ability to perform their job,” she said.

Read more: Tattoo hiring bias persists in Singapore

“In Victoria, there are also discrimination issues that need to be considered.”

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, employers are within their rights to set rules regarding workplace appearance, but it’s important to ensure that any proposed rules that affect people with tattoos do not amount to discrimination.

 “Certainly, if an employee's appearance is likely to impact upon the employer's reputation or ability to productively perform their role, there are valid reasons for raising and implementing certain grooming and appearance requirements,” said McDade.

In Australia, one in seven people are sporting a tattoo, according to a study conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
The national study surveyed 8,656 Australians between the ages of 16 to 64 years and showed that Aussie men are more likely to possess a tattoo than women. However, women in their 20s are more likely to have tattoos than men in the same age group.
Read more: Are you thinking of the ink? Tattoo impacting hires

With the issue impacting such a significant number of people, McDade said it is important that employers have clear policies and directions that communicate to employees the required standards of personal grooming and appearance. 

McDade said that in addition to tattoos, there may be valid safety concerns around piercings that are relevant and allow employers to impose certain requirements to comply with their work health and safety duties.

In Victoria, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or prospective employee on the basis of their "physical features".

“This is a ground of discrimination that has been interpreted broadly to include not just a person's height and weight but also their hairstyles and even facial hair,” said McDade.

“To ensure that an employer is not unlawfully discriminating against an employee on the basis of a prohibited ground, the employer must be able to demonstrate that an appropriate appearance is an inherent requirement of the employee's job.”

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