• 6 min read

7 Tips for Handling Tattoos in the Workplace

Tattooed hipster working on laptop holding coffee cup


For years, people have debated on whether or not tattoos should be a factor in employment. And as companies try to become inclusive and diverse, a question more and more HR practitioners find themselves asking is: what exactly passes as acceptable body art?

If you're confused about where tattooed employees fit in today’s modern workplace and how your company can best adapt to an increasingly more diverse workforce, then be sure to read our helpful guide below.

Here are seven tips for handling tattoos in the workplace.

1. Embrace the Shift

There’s no denying that getting inked has become more acceptable and normal over the years. In fact, according to a 2012 survey by the British Association of Dermatologists, at least one in every five Britons has a tattoo. Meanwhile, a 2015 poll by Harris Interactive showed that nearly 29% of Americans have them.

There are millions of people around the world who choose to get inked, so it’s inevitable to encounter a potential hire who has one. When this happens, it’s important to know which steps to take and which policies apply so that you don’t end up stepping on anyone’s rights as an employee.

2. Understand the Culture

There are different reasons why people get inked – most do it to express themselves, others consider it as a form of art, while some (believe it or not) do it for religious reasons. It’s both an individual and a cultural choice that should be regarded with respect, regardless of how you feel about tattoos.

There are some instances, of course, when tattoos are exceedingly inappropriate and deeply offensive. These may include symbols of hate, prejudice and sexism (think Nazi swastika). It is then your right as an employer to refuse a candidate, especially if these tattoos are visible. You can argue that what these symbols represent go against your company’s core values, which is the primary reason why dress codes and policies were created in the first place.

3. Remember that Business Is Business

Depending on the nature of your business and the company you represent, there will be times when you will have to decline a candidate. For example, if you work in an industry that requires a lot of face-time with customers or if it involves being in front of a camera, then it would make sense not to hire someone whose face is covered in tattoos.

A word of caution, though: refusing to hire a person who has tattoos is cause for discriminatory action, especially if there's no provision in your dress code against it. To avoid this predicament, review your company policies diligently. There could be special provisions for people whose work doesn't involve customer interaction. To be on the safe side, always check with your Legal department to make sure you're not breaking or misinterpreting any rules.

4. Cover Your Bases

It's important to make sure that employees not only adhere to company policies but also understand the reasons behind them. When employees don't understand why they have to do something, such as being asked to cover up their tattoos, they often end up resenting management, which can lead to a slew of other problems.

Also, always ask them to sign a contract which states that they agree to the dress code; that way, difficult employees won’t be able to claim ignorance in the future.


5. Respect People’s Right to Freedom of Expression

Some of your employees might think that implementing a strict dress code violates their right to freedom of expression, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, the law is pretty much on your side with this one.

When it comes to proper office appearance and work conduct, employment law defers to companies to create and implement their own policies. It’s well within your rights to provide rules on how to dress, act and look inside the office. This is how you protect the company’s brand image and attract the right people.

Just take a look at the airline industry. They still have some of the most stringent guidelines when it comes to the overall appearance of their cabin crew. But this doesn’t in any way – legally or emotionally – violate their employees’ rights. Airlines have always been clear about what kind of image they want to project, which is why they set their dress codes very strictly and very early on.

6. Read Up on the Law

Both the UK and the US have laws that protect employees against unlawful termination. It is, therefore, very important to not set policies that are biased against tattoos or the people who choose to get them. Having a ‘no tattoo policy’ only makes sense if your business requires a lot of customer interaction or is at the mercy of public perception.

There are times when it does get tricky. For instance, if an employee has a religious tattoo or if it’s against his or her beliefs to cover them up, then it’s your job as an employer to accommodate accordingly – particularly if having a tattoo doesn’t directly affect their performance or their jobs. Unless you were explicit from the beginning about having a strict ‘no tattoo policy’, and only if you can prove that an employee wilfully lied to you about having one, only then do you have the right to let them go.

On the other hand, if an employee gets a tattoo before a policy change is officially implemented, then an employer has absolutely no right to fire them. It’s your responsibility to inform your staff about any adjustments in company policies. You are, however, legally entitled to ask them to cover it up.

As an alternative, some companies choose a ‘no visible tattoo policy’, which you may want to consider, as well. That way, employees are given an option to hide their tattoos (again, provided it doesn’t go against their religious beliefs) and, in return, they won’t feel so deprived.

7. Adapt to a Changing World

As cultures continue to evolve, so should companies adapt to the changing needs of the workplace. Apart from protecting your company’s brand image, as an employer, it’s also your duty to get the best talent available. And the reality is you may have to hire someone who is covered in ink from time to time.

If you’re worried about how this will affect the workplace, take comfort in the fact that people’s perception about tattoos has changed. In fact, in a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Innovative Research & Development (IJIRD), 86% of young professionals didn’t think that tattoos or piercings should reduce anyone’s chances of getting a job, while 83% of them don’t associate tattoos with deviant behaviour. These findings are good indicators about how much the workplace should adapt when drafting today’s dress codes and company guidelines.

For the longest time, tattoos have been relegated to the realm of outlaws, gangsters and rebels. But, today, people wear their ink like a badge of pride – it’s a part of who they are. Taking that away from them feels a lot like stripping them of their identity, and really, who wants to work in a place like that?

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to create policies that attract, rather than turn off potential talent. Creating a safe, fun and flexible environment will undoubtedly lead to better results, not just for the employees but for the company, as well.

How does your company feel about tattoos in the workplace? Has your HR department introduced a policy against employees showing their ink? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...