Visible tattoos in the workplace are often thought of as a workplace taboo. But should SMEs abide by this stereotype, or will it lead to them missing out on talent?
Attitudes towards tattoos in the wokplace have changed over the past few decades, and now it's far more common to see a range of professionals with body art and many more that have them in places you'd never see in the office.
However, not so long ago Forbes suggested that visible tattoos are still having a negative impact on an individual's chance of employment, but a more recent article said they were "no longer a kiss of death in the workplace“. For the most part you wouldn't know who is tattooed and who isn't but it's becoming common to see them in visible locations such as the forearms, hands or neck.
So what does this mean for you as an SME owner?
When you come to hire someone, you need to be ready for what to do if they are tattooed. Should tattoos be allowed in the workplace and should a candidate's body art affect your decision about hiring them? If so, why?
Part of it depends on your business. There is certainly an argument to count tattoos against someone when hiring if the role is highly customer-facing; research shows that consumers prefer interacting with non-tattooed staff. However, the other side of that coin is that someone with great enthusiasm and personal skills will be a good hire, tattooed or not, so it shouldn't be the sole factor in your decision.
What the law says about tattoos and piercings
Employment law in the UK, US and most other countries states that companies are allowed to ask employees to cover tattoos or piercings when at work under the dress code. However, if an individual has body art for a religious reason or if asking them to cover up could be viewed as discrimination, there may be a case for them to be allowed to display them.
Employment law largely leaves it up to employers to decide what is appropriate for staff to wear, including whether any tattoos or piercings can be visible. Some sectors, such as the airline industry, are particularly strict on the matter, while others are much more relaxed.
Many companies use their own discretion and whether or not they ask individuals to cover tattoos depends on the size, nature and placement of the body art, as well as if any other colleagues have complained or found it offensive.
Is it body art or unprofessional?
A shift in the modern business world to being a more open and inclusive environment has meant that many employers are fairly relaxed about tattoos in the workplace. In an age where companies are trying to make themselves as diverse as possible, it seems at odds to judge a candidate or employee on something that doesn't affect their ability to do their job in any way.
Even employers like the army, who have traditionally been very strict in regards to their staff's appearance, are changing their stance on body art in the workplace. Both the US and UK military have recently allowed employees to have tattoos in certain places, though there are notable exceptions as to what is permitted.
As with most policies that affect employees directly, it's important that you use your own judgement when deciding what your policy is. Are people offended by tattoos? Do they liaise with clients that will look negatively on body art? Is being seen as an inclusive employer a priority to you? These questions should help you determine how strict your dress code policy should be.
In addition to this, it's important that any policy you decide upon is made as transparent as possible. If deciding that you want all employees to cover their tattoos for work, it's good to be clear why you have made this decision and ensure it is fairly enforced throughout the company.
How this will affect hiring talent
The main argument for a tattoo-inclusive workplace is that you don't want to end up missing out on talent. Aisha Oakley, head of HR outsourcing at the Bradfield Group, points out that this kind of discrimination "means the pool of talent is automatically shrunk for those employers who have negative perceptions of those with tattoos".
The last thing you don’t want to do is reject the perfect job candidate - someone who could have a major positive impact on your SME - just because they are tattooed. That doesn't mean begrudgingly hiring someone if you're not prepared to treat them equally, either; if you're going to have visible tattoos in the workplace, you need to be committed to being inclusive.
Kirsten Davidson, head of employer brand at Glassdoor, said: "Labeling something taboo is dangerous for workplace transparency. When we look at companies rated highly for culture & values on Glassdoor, we often see employee feedback about feeling comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, or feeling free to be authentic."
To this end, many businesses are getting rid of any kind of dress code whatsoever. If a job doesn't involve meeting clients, is there really any need for it? Chartered HR professional Sarah Loates argues that creativity and freedom of self-expression should be valued much more than how employees look.
Embracing your workforce whether they’re tattooed or not could lead to a more relaxed atmosphere and employees who feel fulfilled, therefore allowing their productivity levels to get higher as a result.
With more people than ever getting some form of body art, it's important that you consider the impact of potentially isolating such a big group from your workforce.
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