What if one of your staff returned from holiday with a substantial tattoo?
Would your existing policies allow you to take action (if you wished to)?
Would you just have to accept the situation? Or would you perhaps insist they cover the tattoo with clothing or tattoo makeup?
Could you even do that?
But I Like My Tattoo!
As a manager, you may feel (or be told!) that there is an issue with staff having tattoos in your centre. We are not going to take a view on that policy here, but we will suggest you prepare in advance so you don't get caught out.
Your newly-tattooed staff member will have a host of reasons why you taking issue with their tattoo is not fair:
- You don’t have a right!
- Tattoos say nothing about the ability of a person!
- Our children’s parents probably have them – and the parents will relate better to a teacher that sports tattoos!
- Children see them on TV all the time!
- Everyone has one!" (Or worse, "YOU have one!")
- "You’re an old fuddy-duddy!"
You'll need to be ready with your response.
Choose Between Your Tattoo and Your Job!
In most countries it is within the rights of an employer to establish a dress code for their organisation – and that dress code includes tattoos.
The broad argument goes this way: it isn’t discrimination because no one is born with a tattoo. A tattoo is a choice, and an employer (and the public) is free to accept or reject the choice. If an organisation wishes to project a certain professional image, or feels clients would likely be put off by a certain style of clothing or body modification, then it’s reasonable to ban or limit them (in the same way we can ask staff to wear a tie, skirt, uniform, etc.).
So basically, employees get to choose; have a tattoo, or follow the dress code and have a job!
But there is a serious side to this issue. There are cultures where tattoos are seen as frightening or intimidating. In Japan, where tattoos are widely associated with organised crime, bans are commonplace (tattooing in Japan goes back at least as far as 5,000 BC, and during the 7th and 8th centuries, evidence suggests that tattooing began to be used as a form of punishment for criminals, which resulted in an enduring association with criminality). So for customer-facing staff, restricting tattoos is a logical addition to their dress code.
However, things do become murky if a tattoo is part of a person’s expression of their race, nationality or ethnic origin though. Any requirement to cover up may turn out to be an infringement of their human rights. Here’s an excerpt from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission guide:
- A policy banning tattoos is not of itself unlawful. However, in enforcing such a policy an employer needs to be aware that if the tattoo is of religious or ethnic significance a complaint of indirect discrimination could be made
- An applicant who suspects that having a moko was the reason for not getting a job can make a discrimination complaint
(While on the subject of employing people, be careful to avoid any judgement or assumption about the qualifications of an applicant because they have tattoos. It can get you into hot water. For example, a woman with a tattoo of an anchor on her arm is no less entitled to be judged based on legitimate business factors than a retired sailor.)
So to sum up, you are most likely within your rights and acting lawfully to restrict tattoos if you:
- don't discriminate on the basis of tattoos,
- have a sensible business-related reason for your actions,
- offer staff reasonable options for covering up, and
- listen to their point of view.
You are most likely within your rights and acting lawfully to restrict tattoos. (But as with all industrial relations matters, there is absolutely no substitute for specialist industrial relations legal advice - early!).
It’s pretty clear though. You can have rules for tattoos in your centre.
So Maybe It's a Good Idea to Develop a Tattoo Policy?
Obviously you can’t prevent a staff member from getting a tattoo. You won’t be there at the time! But if you need to react after the event, you’ll want to have a tattoo policy in place.
By making staff aware of the policy (and of course having them sign it) you can go a long way to keeping yourself out of the tangle we described in the opening paragraph.
Of course if you have no view on tattoos, or you encourage them/have some yourself, you may feel there is no need to adopt a policy. But having a policy does give you the tools to handle an extreme or offensive situation should it occur.
When drafting and discussing the policy, it's best to stay focused on the business issues at hand. You might be surprised at how many of your current staff have tattoos and simply cover them up at work - so negative assumptions and comments about what tattoos say about the people might be met with a stony silence!
Here are some things to consider when you go about setting up a policy:
- Survey your parents/caregivers and staff. Talk to the people affected most by a potential workplace tattoo and see what they say.
- Be careful about stereotyping. Policies that prohibit tattoos should not reflect value judgments about tattoos or the people who get them.
- Don't infringe on religious or cultural practices. Your tattoo policy should be flexible enough to still accommodate an employees' beliefs.
- Don’t make it too broad. Aim your tattoo policy towards just the tattoos that you think may affect your centre - for example, no profanities in one's tattoos, or no tattoos on the face, head and neck.
- Don't just ban tattoos for no reason. State a clear, particular purpose. For example, the US Army's policy is (at least partly) an effort to maintain a uniform look. Your staff will be more open to a policy that states a business-related reason instead of just your personal preference.
What Should Be in Your Tattoo Policy?
If you are looking for a middle-of-the-road policy, the US Marines might have done the work for you (with minor editing):
- Any tattoo, regardless of where it is cannot express sexism, nudity, racism, vulgarity or anything that is offensive and is of nature to bring discredit to the Marine Corps or damage the nation’s expectations of them.
- Marines can have an unlimited number of tattoos that are covered by the properly fitting standard physical training uniform: green t-shirt and green shorts.
- Marines are prohibited from getting tattoos on the head, neck, inside the mouth, wrists, knees, elbows and hands with the exception of a single band tattoo of no more than three-eighths of an inch in width on one finger.
Their additional detail is very precise (and probably not necessary in an early childhood centre):
- Marines may have band tattoos. Band tattoos are tattoos which fully encircle the circumference of the body part. They cannot exceed three inches or the width of an individual Marine’s four fingers joined, the second knuckle of the index finger to the first knuckle of the pinky finger.
You can read more here.
Alternatively, if wish to have a no tattoos policy, something like this might work:
At _______, although we don’t disallow tattoos, we have determined (and do enforce) that tattoos of any nature must be covered up by clothing or tattoo cover-up makeup. This policy is for all employees and violations will result in a written warning. Upon three written warnings, the employee may face termination or change in position as a result of continual violation of the tattoo policy.
Food For Thought...
- It makes good sense (and could make your life a lot easier in the future) to have a written tattoo policy.
- Have staff read and sign off on the policy, and then enforce it consistently.
- Make sure your tattoo policy is followed by everyone and, when enforced, is fair to every staff member.
- Be ready to adapt. Ideas about tattoos, and their acceptance, are changing rapidly.
Soldiers told new rules governing tattoos, grooming standards on the way
Scottsdale Police Tattoo Policy
Why It's Time To Change Your Company's Dress Code
The U.S. Navy's new tattoo rules explained
Professional dress code and Tattoos
Employer tattoo coverup request ruled OK
Australia: Can an employer ban tattoos in the workplace?
New Zealand Human Rights Commission A-Z Guide for Employers.