Love them or hate them, tattoos are popular and more and more people have them. From Judi Dench to Harry Styles, an increasing amount of poeple are choosing to decorate their bodies with ink.
In fact, statistics show that one in five adults in the UK now sport tattoos. It appears that body art has moved from a rebellious sub culture to the main steam, but has the workplace kept up with this change? A number of policies and dress codes continue to prohibit visible tattoos and there are calls to make this practice unlawful.
It’s been a big year for cases involving dress codes at work. You may recall the headline hitting incident from 2016 where a London receptionist was sent home from work after refusing to wear high heels. The incident lead to a government inquiry following accusations of discriminatory practices against women. This was followed by two cases in the European Court of Justice where Muslim employees were dismissed for wearing headscarves and actions were brought for direct and indirect religious discrimination.
The legal position
Despite recent challenges on acceptable dress codes at work, it is still technically legal for companies not to hire or to fire individuals based on visible tattoos unless those tattoos are for religious or cultural reasons.
The Equality Act 2010 does not include tattoos in its list of protected characteristics. An employer will only breach the Act if it discriminates against a person on the grounds of sex, race, religion, or any of the remaining six protected characteristics. But while there have been no reported challenges to this in the employment tribunal, employers should tread carefully.
A 2016 ACAS survey discovered that negative attitudes towards tattooed individuals can influence the recruitment process and the retention of staff. With statistics showing that almost a third of 25 to 39 year olds are tattooed whereas 95% of over 65s aren’t, it’s not inconceivable for a disgruntled employee to present a claim on the basis that policy banning tattoos was indirectly discriminatory. Employers may be able to justify this treatment on legitimate grounds, but there’s a chance a claim like this could succeed. From a commercial perspective companies will want to avoid restricting the pool of potential talent and may want to consider relaxing their current policies to ensure they attract the best calibre of staff.
In August, the Police Federation announced that their campaign for the acceptance of tattooed police officers launched last year was met with success. Results from a survey on attitudes to visible tattoos said that 73% of people think its ok for police officers to display ink.
It was, however, deemed less acceptable for workers in typically female friendly roles like primary school teachers, nurses and air hostesses to display tattoos which show there’s still some way to go.
In the meantime, employers should adopt a suitable policy and make clear what is and is not acceptable and the business reasons for this. Any dress code should be written down and communicated to employees so they know what’s expected of them. As it stands, employers can determine whether to permit or prohibit tattooed staff but given the increased rise in this trend, it seems this will remain a controversial issue.
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