Tattoos in the Workplace

20 Nov
tattoos in the workplace

Nowadays, tattoos have gained much wider social acceptance than in previous generations. More and more people, both men and women, are tattooed.  In fact, one in five Australians has one or more tattoos [source: McCrindle].  These people work in all kinds of careers and at all levels.  So does having a visible tattoo have any relevance to a person’s employment?   Is it discrimination to treat those with tattoos differently?  We attempt to give you a very quick summary of some of the thorny issues of tattoos in the workplace.

Perception of tattoos in the workplace

Despite being more mainstream, visible tattoos are far from being widely accepted in the workplace. Tattoos still carry some stigma in many organisations, and reactions to them can be unfavourable.  Have a look at this infographic by Skinfo, which contains some interesting stats about attitudes to tattoos.  Although it is based on US data, it is an interesting read.

Dr Andrew Timming is Reader in Management at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is particularly interested in the role of physical appearance in employee selection, particularly body art and its effects on job prospects.  A study conducted in 2013 of hiring managers’ attitudes towards tattooed candidates concluded that most of them had a negative view of tattoos.  Even the few managers who had nothing against tattoos personally stated that they would find it difficult to take on a tattooed candidate because of the negative image perceived by the company’s customers.  In other words it doesn’t really matter what the hiring managers themselves think of visible tattoos, it’s how their customers perceive them that matters.

However, in another study in 2016 Dr Timming found that for some kinds of employment, having a visible tattoo could actually help some job applicants find a job.  For example, for fashion retail or trendy bars, visible tattoos may actually been seen positively by younger customers.  These industries want to be seen to project an ‘edgy’ image;  staff with visible tattoos can convey a creative type of brand that appeals to the younger target demographic.

Types of careers

Clearly then, tattoo prejudice is seen more in some industries than others.  In creative and industries with younger (and more open-minded) clientele, having visible tattoos probably won’t be an issue to employment, whereas in more conservative industries like accounting, law or banking, anyone with a visible tattoo is unlikely to get hired.

Discrimination or not?

Is it legal to discriminate against potential recruits if they have tattoos?  The short answer is yes it is.  In Australia the Fair Work Act 2009 states that it is illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, family/carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.  Physical appearance is not covered under the Act, which means that hiring managers can refuse to recruit a candidate with visible tattoos if they wish.  Only if somebody had tattoos because of their race or religion could they argue illegal discrimination.

Other employers and tattoo policy

Airlines can be strict about visible tattoos on their customer-facing staff, for example cabin crew.  One young woman from Queensland recently found that she was turned down for cabin crew positions at two airlines because of her small ankle tattoo. Rules relating to tattoos vary across airlines and some are stricter than others.

In terms of uniformed services in Australia here’s a summary of what is and what is not allowed:

Australian Army: Tattoos are prohibited on the face, scalp, ears, neck and hands.

Australian Air Force: Tattoos are prohibited on the face, scalp, ears and neck.

Australian Navy: Tattoos are prohibited on the face, scalp, ears and neck.

For all ADF services tattoos are permitted on other parts of the body unless the tattoo is considered offensive and undermines the dignity and authority of the Australian Defence Force.

Australian Federal Police: Facial tattoos are not permitted.  There are no restrictions on tattoos on other parts of the body unless they are offensive or inappropriate when visible.

NSW Police: Tattoos are prohibited on the face, scalp, ears, neck and hands.


Like it or not, having a tattoo can still hinder career prospects in many workplaces.  Consequently, more and more people are seeking laser tattoo removal.  

If you are thinking about getting a new tattoo, you would be well-advised to get one that can be easily covered up. You don’t know when it could cause a problem in your future career.


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