Tattoos and body art should not mean workers are discriminated against.

27 September 2016

Author: Leona Rankin
Practice Area: Employment Law


According to a report released last week by employment mediation service Acas, negative attitudes towards tattoos could result in bosses missing out on talented young workers.

We should explore the legal implications of discriminating on the basis of body art.

Tattoos are increasingly popular and a recent survey suggests that almost 20% of UK adults now have a tattoo.

A shift in societal perceptions means that tattoos no longer conjure up, to the same extent, the prejudices and negative stereotypes that they once did.

In spite of this, many employers’ attitudes do not reflect this increased openness in society.

Brand representation and perceived customer expectations explain why some employers still refuse to hire on the basis of visible tattoos. In an effort to maintain the corporate image, employers are perfectly entitled to set standards of dress or image and to pick and choose employees based on their individual aesthetic qualities, provided it does not amount to discrimination.

While employers’ attitudes in more conservative sectors are unlikely to change any time soon, there will of course be employers who, depending on their clientele, will consider that having employees with tattoos may in fact enhance their corporate image.

As noted above, employers need to be careful that their dress code policy doesn’t cross the line into, for example, race, age or disability discrimination.

For instance, a student with one arm was successful in her claim of disability discrimination against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, when she accused it of “hiding” her in the stockroom of its London outlet because her prosthetic arm didn’t fit with its “look policy”. Flight attendants in almost every airline around the world have to adhere to strict dress policies which are in line with the corporate image of the brand.

If we look at Emirates as an example, attendants have to follow a very specific policy which dictates almost every element of an outfit which is acceptable, down to hair styles and lipstick colours.

This airline believes that first impressions count and it works hard to maintain that high standard. We would recommend that employers take a cautious approach to their recruitment policies and be able to justify anything in their workplace dress code which could be viewed as untoward or controversial.