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Tattoos and Discrimination

The increasing prevalence of tattoos among the workforce of modern Britain has led to both employers and employees asking the highly pertinent question of where the line can be drawn when it comes to body art.

We get fairly regular enquiries from employers regarding front of house or customer facing staff with visible tattoos. Their concern is that customers may be taken aback by being confronted with a heavily tattooed employee. By contrast employees are often confused as to where employer boundaries lie on the issue and so are concerned for the loss of their role, or more often whether their tattoo(s) may prevent them from obtaining employment in the first place.

The only reason these questions arise is because of the ingrained conscious and subconscious associations John and Jane Doe make when they see a person with tattoos. Until very recently tattooing of most descriptions was associated with a diverse counterculture of sorts; bikers, rockers, criminals and general ne’er-do-wells.

These associations and indeed most of the generic terms used above to describe those sub-cultures, are entirely outdated; one in five Britons now have a tattoo. So the negative categorisation of people with tattoos is no longer justified, if indeed it ever was.

The legal question often raised is can an employer dismiss or refuse employment to someone on the basis of their body art? Would this not be discrimination? The answer at the time of writing is yes they can and no it would not be caught by the Equality Act as being tattooed is not a protected characteristic under that Act.

Test cases attempting to assert that tattooing can be someone’s religion or belief have failed. To our knowledge there has not been a case where a man of Maori ethnicity, having the facial tattoos of that culture, has sought to assert discrimination. In our view this would quite likely be the only situation wherein a discrimination claim could be brought and that would theoretically be on the basis of race and/or religion or belief.

There not being too many Maoris in this hemisphere and the Equality Act not covering the rest of the UK population for their body art, we are left with the current situation wherein employers regulate their own practices as to what tattoos are acceptable.

The general rule of thumb is that tattoos above the neck, below the elbow or anywhere else that are visible to the public in a customer facing role will cause an employee trouble and may prevent them from obtaining work, or if freshly inked lose them their current job, depending on what they do. A neck or facial tattoo may be acceptable for a funky tattooed barber in Shoreditch, though the same will not be true for a City Investment Banker or Solicitor.

Another critical point can be what the tattoo is of; images of violence, hatred or sexually explicit material that are visible will likely be a one way ticket to the dole office or self-employment, though again depending entirely on what the person does and the attitude of their employer.

At present then when it comes to tattoos, employers can do as they please when it comes to hiring and firing and the law will back them. We would however still advocate that employers have a clear written policy in place stipulating what is and is not acceptable when it comes to tattoos, as this means that employees know where they stand.

As always if I can provide you with any further assistance on tattoos or any other issue, please do not hesitate to contact me for a free consultation on 0113 350 4030 or samira.cakali@scesolicitors.co.uk.


Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here. 

Samira Cakali

Samira Cakali is a pragmatic and approachable solicitor advocate with extensive contentious and non-contentious experience in the fields of employment law as well as civil litigation, within a range of commercial businesses from SME’s to multinationals as well as senior executives.

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