Tattoos are becoming increasingly common in the United Kingdom. In 2012 it was estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK had tattoos. There is also a big celebrity tattoo culture making them more and more popular with younger people in particular.
However, many people, including many employers, dislike the idea of tattoos. Employers have been frequently known to refuse to employ prospective employees because of their tattoos or to dismiss employees for having tattoos or for failing to cover them up while at work.
Under current UK law it is perfectly legal for an employer to refuse to hire someone on the basis of their tattoo, unless the prospective employee can show that the tattoo related to their particular religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010. Even if the tattoo did relate to their religion or belief then, provided that the policy is applied equally to all prospective employees/employees then it may still be possible to justify indirect discrimination as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
With regard to existing employee, employers are entitled to promote a certain image through their workforce which may mean that they wish to have a "no visible tattoo policy". Where a company has such a policy and the employees know that this is part of the company rules then it will be acceptable for the employer to take action if an employee breaches the policy. In addition, if an employee refuses to comply with the policy then it is likely that they can be dismissed fairly in most circumstances. The BBC recently reported on this issue and their article contains various examples of employees who lost their jobs due to having tattoos - Should anti-tattoo discrimination be illegal?
If an employee has less than 2 years' service then, provided that there is no unlawful discrimination, it is very unlikely that they will be able to do anything if they are dismissed for having a tattoo. Employees with over 2 years' service have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. As such an employer will require to act fairly and reasonably if dismissing an employee with over 2 years service who has a tattoo.
It is unlikely to be fair if an employee has been dismissed purely for having a tattoo, unless the tattoo is offensive or likely to cause offense (for example, if it was racist or derogatory in nature). However, it may well be fair to dismiss an employee if they refuse to comply with a request to cover up a tattoo whilst at work provided that there is a policy in place requiring them to do this.
Earlier this month ACAS issued guidance on Dress Codes and Appearance in the Work Place which looks at two main areas:- tattoos and body piercings and religious dress. This guidance contains the very sensible recommendation that employers should document any dress/appearance code in a policy or staff handbook and ensure that it is clearly communicated to all employees. The guidance also points out that employers need to be careful not to give rise to discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010 when enforcing policies of this nature.
Employers do though need to bear in mind that a lot of the younger generation already have tattoos and certain employers may need to have a more flexible approach moving forward otherwise they run the risk of excluding good talent from being employed within their business.