Legal Eye: Tattoos in the workplace can be a difficult issue

09/07/12. John Devlin. KINCARDINE. 16 High Street. Tattoo studios. Pic of Falkirk man Leroy Kelly (24), , who is having a large Batman tatoo painted to mark release of the new film. Tattoo by artist Scott Mitchell (22).  (CM)
09/07/12. John Devlin. KINCARDINE. 16 High Street. Tattoo studios. Pic of Falkirk man Leroy Kelly (24), , who is having a large Batman tatoo painted to mark release of the new film. Tattoo by artist Scott Mitchell (22). (CM)

Over the last few years tattoos have become more and more common, and this has been raising interesting problems for employers who are keen to project a professional image.

Last month, Charlotte Tumilty, a trainee teaching assistant was sent away from a school placement at St John Vianney’s RC Primary School, in Hartlepool because of her tattoos. She was informed that the tattoos on her hands and neck were not appropriate and she was asked to “consider how best to cover up”. The school said it “expects all members of staff to project a professional image”.

A statement said: “We have a code of conduct, part of which requires members of staff with tattoos to cover them up.

“Ms Tumilty was politely asked to consider how best to cover up her tattoos and it was suggested she should begin her placement later in the week.”

So should employers be concerned about tattoos in the workplace?

From a legal point of view this will depend very much on the type of job and work sector.

Tattoos that are acceptable on a professional footballer or scaffolder may not be acceptable on say a doctor or solicitor, or any employees who are customer facing and represent a company’s image.

Businesses are quite rightly concerned to maintain their reputation which may have been built up over many years.

Their staff will be part of the company image which goes hand in hand with that reputation. It may therefore be acceptable for an employer to refuse to hire a person if their tattoos do not fit in with that image. It may also be possible to dismiss an existing employee who gets a tattoo when the existing policy states that tattoos are not permitted or must not be visible at work.

Does the tattooed employee have protection? No employee with two years’ service can be dismissed unfairly and therefore employers need to pay particular attention to their existing policies and take great care about introducing any new policy.

Employers who are concerned would be well advised to review their dress code policy and carefully consider whether visible tattoos are acceptable and if so if they should be limited to back room or non-customer facing staff. Should the tattoos be limited in size? What about existing employees who already have tattoos? Do any employees belong to a religion or faith where a tattoo (either permanent or temporary) is required?

Overall an employer should be prepared to be as flexible as possible and accommodate employees and adjust their policies accordingly.

Charlotte Tumilty has said she would consider having some of her tattoos removed if it would improve her job prospects.

She added: “If it means me working and getting a job to provide for my family then I will do whatever it takes.”

For both employers and employees tattoos can be a difficult issue and, as always, expert legal advice should be sought if tattoos cause problems in the workplace.

Mark Pentecost is an assistant solicitor at Sanderson McCreath and Edney in Berwick.