Visible tattoos: time to relax policies on employee appearance?

Sign of the times? Employers are challenged to change view on tattoos. Pic: Janinne Wiedel/REX/Shutterstock

New research on appearance at work from Acas shows that employers may be out of touch with changing public attitudes to visible tattoos, body piercings and other developments. Rachel Pinto looks at how employers should respond. 

With recent reports of employers like McDonald’s and Starbucks relaxing their stance on tattoos, are attitudes to employee appearance becoming more liberal?

New research from Acas and King’s College addresses this very question, exploring employer perceptions on all aspects of staff appearance at work, from dress codes to body modifications such as tattoos and body piercings.

Based on a comprehensive review of case law, wider literature and a series of interviews with employers and employees, it is clear that there are still tensions surrounding appearance issues at work.

For example, the presence of visible body modifications such as tattoos and piercings are likely to be frowned upon in some parts of the services sector. From an employer perspective, there is concern over how these may be viewed by potential customers or clients.

From an employee perspective, there is a certain resentment about being judged because of the way you look. Some people respond by concealing their “personalisations” or simply leave to find a more understanding employer.

These rising tensions over what is “acceptable” raise serious questions:

How does appearance influence recruitment practices?

Would a highly talented individual with bold body piercings be overlooked because of the way they look? You could argue that it’s the employer’s prerogative to hire who they choose – but with a growing number of people – particularly young people – with tattoos and piercings, it may mean that employers are more likely to be prejudiced towards certain groups, and also miss out on employing talented individuals.

Are employers moving with the times?

The signs here are encouraging. The research does indicate that some organisations have begun to reconsider their strict “no tattoo” policies for front-line staff, and also consider all aspects of employee appearance. A 2015 XpertHR survey also showed that tattoos and piercings were allowed in around 41% of the organisations surveyed.

How does corporate branding fit with personal branding?

Although many employers encourage uniformity as a way of team building and building a brand image, it is important to recognise the benefits that a diverse workforce can bring. At Starbucks, for example, they have recognised that it’s no bad thing if their staff mirror the appearance of their customers.

What do employers need to be aware of?

While individuals displaying tattoos, piercings and other body modifications are not protected under the Equality Act 2010, it is important for employers to be mindful that it may result in disgruntled employees, and the possibility of challenges on the grounds of a breach of human rights. Not to mention employees feeling alienated and detached from the organisation they work for. This can all take its toll on workplace productivity.

The lesson is that, as with most things, clarity is best. Employers should put in place clear policies that make it clear what is allowed and what is forbidden. It’s also helpful to explain why these decisions have been reached and to consult before you decide.

And while having clear policies on appearance at work can act as a guide on behaviour, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of good line management. Strong communication between staff and management is always more effective at getting viewpoints across, and balancing organisational concerns with employee needs, than rigid, formal procedures.

Rachel Pinto

About Rachel Pinto

Rachel Pinto is a senior research officer at Acas focusing on policy research.
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