A recent ACAS report explored the impact of tattoos and other body modifications on recruitment and dress codes. According to the research, nearly one in three people aged 16 - 44 has a tattoo, but most employers perceive them negatively, either requiring them to be covered up at work or refusing to hire individuals with visible tattoos altogether (particularly in client-facing roles). ACAS warns that businesses risk losing out on good staff because of what they call "outdated" attitudes.
The research chimes with our experience of our clients' policies, although some businesses (particularly retail and hospitality businesses looking to appeal to younger customers) are increasingly relaxed about staff with visible tattoos and piercings.
Businesses are generally free to impose a dress code (and take disciplinary action, including dismissal, against employees who fail to comply) providing it is clearly communicated to staff, applied consistently and does not constitute unlawful discrimination. More difficult issues can arise with dress code requirements which place individuals with a particular protected characteristic at a disadvantage (such as bans on visible religious symbols). In such cases, the dress code will amount to unlawful discrimination if the business cannot show that it is justified.
Tattoo bans may impact disproportionately on younger applicants/staff, so a ban could arguably amount to age discrimination. However, in many contexts, the business will be able to justify such a ban on the basis of client/customer perceptions. That's something that may change over time, as tattoos become ever more prevalent, so businesses need to keep dress codes under review.
The conciliation service Acas said negative attitudes about visible tattoos are outdated. Employers could be drastically reducing the pool of potential recruits because so many young people now have tattoos, Acas said. It said employers should be thinking about relaxing dress codes in general.