Dame Judi Dench recently celebrated her 81st birthday by getting her first tattoo.

She follows a long list of celebrities with body art – Samantha Cameron has a dolphin on her ankle, David Dimbleby has a scorpion on his shoulder, Cara Delavigne has a lion on her finger and Cheryl Cole has covered her whole bottom with a rose design. Tattoos have become very much part of the mainstream. It is no longer taboo or shocking, but are they accepted in the workplace?

Since 2012, the Met Police has enforced a ban on police officers having visible tattoos on their hands or face. At present, the Police Federation of England and Wales is campaigning for these rules to be relaxed. Similar bans are reportedly in force in airline and retail companies.

The media has reported numerous cases of employees being denied employment or dismissed as a result of their tattoos. These employees maintain that their body ink does not impact their work or how dedicated, hardworking or skilled they are. Employers have retaliated by arguing that they are acting within their rights. As the law stands, there is no specific legal protection under the Equality Act 2010 given to employees who suffer harassment or discrimination as a result of their tattoos.

What does your business say?

As an employer, you have considerable discretion when deciding the rules on tattoos. The rules can range from total blanket bans to restrictions to cover up any visible body art to no strict rules at all. Most employers will prohibit any tattoos that are discriminatory, derogatory or linked to criminal or violent activity.

Companies are concerned that visible tattoos could have a negative impact on their brand and the image they want to portray to their clients. Therefore, many employers ask employees in public facing roles to cover up any tattoos that are openly on display. However, in non-public facing roles, it may not be appropriate to do this. For example, a waitress may be asked to cover up a tattoo on her arm as she is in constant contact with customers, but the chef may not need to do so because he does not enter the restaurant.

Boundaries of workplace rules

Before introducing such rules, you must think about what restrictions you wish to impose on your current workforce and if those limitations are objectively justified. For each restriction, you should be able to provide a real business reason.

All rules regarding tattoos should be in writing and clearly communicated and accessible to all members of staff. Most importantly, they must be applied in a fair and consistent manner. If company rules dictate that there is a blanket ban on tattoos and an individual comes into work with one, you may take disciplinary action. However, remember to be consistent so that employees cannot claim they were treated in a different way to another employee for the same offence.

Employers should tread carefully when dismissing an employee who has more than two years’ continuous service as they are protected by unfair dismissal laws. Other options should be considered, such as telling them to roll their sleeves down to not show the tattoos or putting the employee in a non customer facing role.

More flexibility should be given to employees who have tattoos that involve religious iconography. It may not seem apparent to you, but tattoos may be linked to a person’s religion or belief. You should handle this with care and sensitivity.

Is a change in attitude needed?

Having a zero tolerance policy on tattoos is becoming more difficult for employers as the popularity of tattoos continues to rise. People of all ages and genders are deciding to get inked. Employers will need to ensure their rules are sensible and reviewed regularly so that they do not lose the best talent in the market and to avoid any claims.

Do you have any questions? Please do not hesitate in calling your designated Employment Law Adviser.

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