Tattoo you – employee dress codes for the 2010s

Remember when tattoos were the preserve of sailors and football hooligans? And earrings were only for gypsies and fashionable ladies?

How times change. For people under thirty, it’s almost more unusable NOT to have a tattoo or some description of body piercing or other modification than to actually have some form of permanent body art. In fact over twenty percent of the UK’s population now has a tattoo, according to figures published late in 2014. Even Samantha Cameron, the wife of the current UK prime minister, has a tattoo.

This leaves employers with something of a challenge. Not everyone thinks tattoos are acceptable. Can you be sure that a long-standing and rather old-fashioned customer will be impressed when your employee turns up wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and revealing a forearm covered in colourful tattoos?

Despite the rise in the appeal and acceptance of tattoos, the issue of permanent body art remains a contentious one. Most dress codes still require that tattoos be covered up, which can be a little difficult when an employee’s tattoos are above the neckline or on the hands.

Some people are now claiming that banning people from displaying tattoos amounts to discrimination, and any employer-introduced rules banning their display should be made illegal.

Several people have lost their jobs because of their tattoos. In 2013, a mother-of-three was dismissed as a waitress following customer complaints about her ‘Everything happens for a reason’ tattoo. In 2012 a Next employee made a complaint that he had been sacked from his job as a result of his eighty or so tattoos.

Employers say that they still have the right to insist on a no-visible-tattoos policy.

A Birmingham-born property entrepreneur named King of Ink Land King Body Art The Extreme Ink-Ite (not his birth name, which was Mathew Whelan) is leading a campaign to protect the employment rights of people with body modifications. Body Art (which is the shortened name King of Ink Land King Body Art The Extreme Ink-Ite uses) is thought to be the UK’s most tattooed man.

‘If someone can do a job, they should be equal with the next person who has the same CV,’ he says. ‘I was nine when I knew I wanted (tattoos). People who are modified have an identity because of their image and who they are.’

Employers do not seem to agree. The Met Police bans all tattoos that can be seen above the collar line or on the hands, or are of a ‘discriminatory, violent or intimidating’ nature. Many airlines have restrictions on tattoos among cabin crew.

It can be seen that such restrictive policies are more than a little behind the times, particularly in an environment where diversity is otherwise encouraged. Perhaps the time has come for employers to consider the wider benefit of attracting and representing a workforce that is full of social diversity, and to be seen to championing freedom and expression, inside of subjugation and sterile conformity.