Tattoos in the Workplace

The Shaker
Thu 21 May

Would you employ someone with visible tattoos?

Despite the recent rush of Ed-Hardy-inspired tattooing gloriously adopted by rugby league players and hipsters alike (who would have thought?) there still remains a strong resistance to tattoos within the corporate sphere.

The Economist reports that two in five Americans in their thirties sport a tattoo, and that it is more prevalent among women. Why then are we sometimes resistant to even the most fleeting display of ink?

Like all counter-cultures, tattoos have merged from their rebellious past and have been adopted by the broader community. If you need an example, simply pop down do your local coffee spot to observe a tattooed barista as they work in front of a giant mural of appropriated street art. If you’re lucky, Nirvana might be playing in the background.

But what does this mean for business owners?

It was interesting to read Fairfax’s article about the Dapto Leagues Club. The story covers a dispute around its new policy for staff to prohibit tattoos “on the face, neck, arms or legs on front of house staff.”  Some would say “Fair enough,” while others might consider this part of the long-held tradition of licenced clubs hanging onto archaic rules and regulations.

What makes this an illustrative example is that it has led to comment from the Fair Work Commission (FWC). No, really. While the FWC is not able to provide a ruling on the policy (it doesn’t fall under Dapto Leagues Club’s Enterprise Agreement) they certainly recognise a certain irony in the dispute given almost every rugby league player on television is covered in visible body art.

At the end of the day, a tattoo doesn’t limit the capacity for an employee to execute their role, but it always pays to take into account the broader interpretation of any ink for those with whom the staff member engages. Many would react to the sight of someone sitting on reception wearing a neck tattoo, but would probably also be taken aback if the front desk featured someone dressed as a goth.

It all comes down to context and environment. There’s a reason why neckties – while essentially frivolous – are worn to important meetings. It’s a symbol that you're serious, and that you expect others to take you seriously.

While we might aspire to a higher plane of acceptance for piercings, tattoos or whatever this is, such lofty ideals are not universal throughout society. Allowing your business to operate with barriers to participate – be they perceived or otherwise – may prove to be an expensive way to make a philosophical point.

Or perhaps I’m just getting old.