19th June 2015

Making My Mark In The Work Place: My First Tattoo

I have decided to get a tattoo.  Seriously.  It is something which I have been thinking about for the past few months.  My colleagues tell me that I am ridiculous, that I am too old for ink, that I will regret it forever and that I am suffering from some kind of mid-life crisis.  However none of these comments have yet dissuaded me from the notion.

What does the law say about tattoos?

As an employment lawyer, I am frequently asked whether workers who are treated differently because of their body art have any legal rights against their employers.  Discrimination legislation protects workers against less favourable treatment because of sex, race, religion or belief, age and other protected characteristics.  This protection does not however expressly include protection for workers with tattoos.  Essentially workers with tattoos have no standalone protection under discrimination legislation.

What does an accredited specialist employment lawyer say about tattoos?

Having said all of that, certain religions and philosophical beliefs may encourage tattoos.  It is unlikely that David Beckham, who has a tattoo of Jesus, would be able to rely upon discrimination legislation if he were treated less favourably because of his tattoo.  (I am not convinced that his tattoo is a manifestation of his religion or belief)  On the other hand, a Hindu worker who was forced by an employer to cover up a tattoo may have a claim for discrimination because of religion or belief.

Similarly if reliable statistics were to demonstrate that there was a particular disadvantage to a particular age group within the workplace – for example younger workers who were more likely to have tattoos and more likely to get told to cover them up by their employer – a claim of indirect age discrimination could potentially be pursued.  Depending on the circumstances of the workplace, there may however be a defence open to the employer for both of these types of claim.

What would an employer say about my tattoo? 

Despite the potential risks outlined above, an employer is still entitled to set a dress code and appearance policy for all its employees.  For example, an employer could legitimately create a policy which stipulated that employees could not have visible tattoos, particularly for employees who had customer/client-facing roles.  An employer might also want to prohibit any offensive form of tattoo from the workplace and even make express reference to the acceptability (or otherwise) of piercings, hair styles and beards.  The same caveats above would apply.

Ultimately an employer should take legal advice about the content of such a policy before seeking to enforce it against its workforce.  However it would be equally as important to take legal advice about the implementation of such a policy, particularly to a workforce of existing staff.

What would my parents say about my tattoo? 

With a fair degree of certainty, I am sure that my parents will not approve of my proposed tattoo.  However with an equal degree of certainty, I can assure you that I will not be telling them.  And, if you happen to see them, please keep it up your sleeve (… as will I).

Simon Allison
Accredited by the Law Society of Scotland as a Specialist in Employment Law

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