Tattoos and Piercings: unacceptable in the workplace or just a matter of diversity?

HR Diversity Consultancy, The Clear Company, has responded to research commissioned by Acas from academics at King’s College, London, which suggests that tattoos are still considered unacceptable in many workplaces.


The consultancy works with large multi-nationals to help them to become more inclusive in their hiring decisions. As Director, Kate Headley, points out, bias around body art and piercings is one of the most hotly debated modules in its Inclusive Recruitment and Selection training programme:

“Without exception, case studies around tattoos always lead to an interesting and often heated discussion that invariably concludes that sticking to an evidenced based selection process, with a clearly defined candidate specification, reduces the opportunity for subjective criteria, such as appearance, to influence hiring decisions.”

Body art may be a controversial topic, but its popularity is growing.

Almost a third of younger people now have at least one tattoo and one in ten people in the UK are thought to have a piercing somewhere other than their earlobe, (rising to almost half of young  women aged 16 to 24 (46 per cent) having a non-earlobe piercing), the debate surrounding workplace dress code policies for tattoos and piercings is set to continue.


It isn’t illegal under present legislation to discriminate against someone with a tattoo or piercing, as it’s not covered by the Equality Act 2010 and businesses are allowed to impose a dress code, however following a recent case where a temporary employee was sent home for failing to wear high heels, Acas have recently updated their dress code guidelines because certain rules could have an impact on gender equality.

Employers should remember that dress codes must apply to men and women equally, although they may have different requirements and they must avoid unlawful discrimination.  Acas urge employers to ‘carefully consider’ the reason behind imposing any rules – as there should be ‘sound business reasons’ for it.   This could, for example, be a valid health and safety reason, such as keeping dangling piercings away from factory machinery.  However, should workers with visible tattoos which do not present a hazard be forced to cover them?  At present, provided the rules are equally applied, it seems they can be.

Acas recommends that employers consult with employees in deciding what dress codes should apply. Once an agreement has been reached, it should be written down in a formal policy and communicated to all staff.

Kate Headley argues that whilst discrimination for workers with body art may be ‘legal’, it often comes from the same stereotypical bias as disability discrimination and should be discouraged:

“The issue for people with tattoos is getting employers to see beyond this stereotypical bias, in just the same way as people with visible disabilities have to. The biases may be different in terms of type and manifestation but the discrimination experienced by both parties is broadly the same.”

Acas Head of Equality, Stephen Williams, argued that whilst businesses do have the right to protect their image, discrimination against those with body art could be bad for business.  He said:

“Businesses are perfectly within their right to have rules around appearance at work but these rules should be based on the law where appropriate, and the needs of the business, not managers’ personal preferences.  Employers with a diverse workforce can reap many business benefits as they can tap into the knowledge and skills of staff from a wide range of backgrounds.

“Almost a third of young people now have tattoos so, whilst it remains a legitimate business decision, a dress code that restricts people with tattoos might mean companies are missing out on talented workers.”

Kate Headley concludes:

“People may argue that tattoos are a ‘choice made by the individual’ and they should accept the judgement that comes with making that choice – but religion is also a personal choice and yet it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.”

“We encourage employers to be open to cultural changes, to discuss these issues with their employees, their potential employees and their customers. After all, one in three younger adults now has at least one tattoo and whether they’re an employee, seeking employment or a customer of a brand they will inevitably be negatively influenced by perceived or experienced discrimination against body art.”




Author: Editorial Team

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