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Can Family Employers Enforce Policies Prohibiting Tattoos?

Tattoos have become commonplace in the workplace—one in five Americans has a tattoo. In most cases, employers do not think twice when applicants have standard body tattoos. However, many employers still frown upon face or neck tattoos or staff supervisors with any tattoos.

"Face tattoos are almost always a non-starter outside of hourly work," said the founder and CEO of career website, Ladders. Hand tattoos are less controversial, but still seem out-of-place in many workplaces.

Many employers scrutinize appearance more for their higher-level employees. Most executives do not have any tattoos.

However, tattoos are more common among younger Americans—40 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 have one—so employers are likely to see more tattooed applicants. Although 63 percent of Americans age 60 and older think tattoos are unprofessional, less than 25 percent of millennials take the same view. Rachel Premack "Experts say there are 2 types of tattoos that are still a 'no-go' at work — and they're likely to outright disqualify you from some jobs," (Oct. 05, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Tattoos can be a challenging issue for family employers. Unless there is a legitimate, work-related reason that a staff member cannot have a visible tattoo, it is best for family employers to avoid policies prohibiting tattoos or rejecting applicants because of a tattoo.

In most cases, a family employer will not have a policy, but will simply state they do not like tattoos or would prefer that staff members keep tattoos covered.

Remember, most equal employment laws frown on employers having a preference on how staff looks unless there is a legitimate business reason. An appearance policy will not serve as cover for a discrimination charge by a staff member unless it is legitimately related specifically to a particular job or function.  

Always give preference to your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies over your appearance policies. If policies do conflict, the policies adhering to federal and state law should govern all other policies, including policies involving “employer image.”

Here are some tips to avoid discriminating against staff based on their appearance:

  • Offer employment opportunities and benefits equally to all qualified staff based on merit, not on appearance.
  • Educate managers to avoid making disparaging remarks about the appearance of staff members, and to report any such comments they overhear through the appropriate harassment reporting channels.
  • Do not enforce rules or standards of appearance at a different level for one group of staff over another.
  • Never ask staff to change his or her appearance unless a legitimate, fair, and objective business reason exists.
  • Determine if the staff member's appearance or clothing is related to a disability or religious practice and, if it is, make reasonable accommodations for the staff member.
  • Avoid making hasty employment decisions based on appearance without considering all protected classes and consulting with your legal counsel.
  • Educate managers and supervisors on the sensitive nature of terminating staff because of appearance.
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