Can you sack a worker for getting a tattoo?

Appearance can be everything in business, but we live in a society with strict rules around discrimination. Here's where you stand when the ink dries.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, one in seven Australians has a tattoo. However, not all employers are prepared to allow their staff to have visible tattoos.

A 21-year-old woman applying for work as an airline flight attendant was told she was suitable for the job, but then the interviewer noticed she had a small tattoo of an anchor on her ankle.

She was told that she could not be employed as the airline had a no-tattoo policy, but that she could come back if she had the tattoo removed.Tattoo artist drawing tattoos on an arm

Employers' rights

Employers are entitled to insist on particular standards of appearance in order to maintain the company’s image. This means that you can ban employees from having tattoos and more radical forms of embellishment such as facial piercings or unnatural hair colours, such as green or purple.

Employers can also refuse to employ someone whose appearance does not meet the prevailing standard.

However, it is worth noting that employers cannot ban tattoos or piercings on principle.

The need to maintain specific standards of appearance allows employers to ban tattoos and piercings that are visible, not those that are concealed when the employee is wearing normal work clothes or the staff uniform.

Tattoos for religious, ethnic or cultural reasons

Under Australian anti-discrimination legislation, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee – or prospective employee – on the basis of race, colour, sex, sexual preference, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, or ethnic, national or social origin.

What this means is that if a person has a tattoo for religious, ethnic or cultural reasons, such as a Pacific Islander or Maori background, it could be considered discrimination to refuse to employ them because of the tattoo.

Protecting your business from unfair dismissal claims

If you have certain expectations of your employees regarding appearance, you should have a clear, written policy setting out the relevant rules.

This policy should be clearly articulated to employees before they accept the job.

It is prudent for employers to seek legal advice on how best to formulate this and other workplace policies.

Failure to implement a properly drafted policy regarding staff appearance could leave you exposed to an unfair dismissal claim, as an employee could claim they had no idea that tattoos were a fireable offence.

Nathan Luke is a lawyer at Stacks Law Firm.

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