Dress Code & Visible Tattoos

Companies generally want to present a professional business image to those upon whom their success, and sometimes survival, is dependent; clients, customers, suppliers etc. It is therefore likely that they will impose minimum standards of dress and appearance, which require employees to dress in a way that is deemed appropriate to the Company’s business both within the workplace and when representing the Company.

Most of us will agree with the sentiment but it also raises many questions that will undoubtedly cause dissent in the workplace as everyone struggles with defining and agreeing what is acceptable or appropriate and extends beyond dress to body art and piercings.

Employees are required to be neat, clean, well-groomed and presentable whilst at work, whether working on the Company’s premises or elsewhere on Company business and the following minimum standards are not unusual:

  • Wearing of a business suit (jacket, co-ordinating trousers, skirt or dress) and a smart shirt or blouse.
  • Male employees must also wear a tie.
  • Smart shoes in a discreet, dark colour
  • Hair should be kept neat and well-groomed; colours should be conventional


Policies are just as likely to prohibit the following:

  • Jeans, leggings, combat trousers or torn trousers
  • Nose rings, eyebrow rings and other facial or visible body piercings
  • Tattoos should be kept covered and should not be visible.
  • Shorts or miniskirts
  • Football shirts or tops with other slogans
  • Low cut or transparent tops
  • Excessive or unconventional jewellery.

At this point please think about what each of the issues above actually means to you as another person could have a very different view. How short is a miniskirt? What is excessive for the wearing of jewellery and so it goes on.

There have been several high profile Tribunal and other cases reported recently regarding clothing, jewellery and tattoos including;

Eweida v British Airways plc 2008 

Eweida was employed by British Airways at Heathrow and was required to wear a uniform and to conform with BA’s strict dress code, which included an outright ban on the wearing of visible items of jewellery. As a practising Christian, she would turn up to work wearing a small, but visible, silver cross on a chain and on numerous occasions was asked to conceal it but she always refused. In September 2006, following a further refusal, she was sent home where she remained for five months without pay. I choose to include this case here as an example of how, what to some may be a small and insignificant issue can grow and grow…

She brought a claim under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 and alleged religious discrimination on the grounds of: (1) direct discrimination due to BA’s refusal to allow her to wear a cross; (2) indirect discrimination as BA had applied a “provision, criterion or practice” that put her at a disadvantage because she was a Christian; and (3) harassment. She lost her case and she appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal. However, before the matter was considered there, BA bowed to public pressure and chose to relax its policy so that religious and charity symbols could be visibly worn. Eweida’s case, however, continued.

EAT ruling

She lost her appeal when the EAT held that: (1) there was no direct discrimination because BA would have treated all employees displaying jewellery the same, irrespective of their faith, or lack of one; (2) there wasn’t any indirect discrimination because Christians weren’t put at a particular disadvantage by not being allowed to display a cross; and (3) there was no harassment of Eweida as BA had only acted to enforce its dress code. This decision is an important one, as there now needs to be evidence of discrimination to a religious group as a whole. Showing a personal disadvantage (in this case Eweida not being allowed to display a cross) isn’t enough to prove religious discrimination.

“An employee must show that there’s a disadvantage to the religious group that they belong to as a whole. Simply suffering a personal disadvantage isn’t enough. Check that your dress code can always be justified on business-related grounds and that all employees are treated the same way”.


Now what about visible tattoos?

The Metropolitan Police recently banned all visible tattoos because they “don’t present a professional image”. Can you do the same thing?

 If anyone argues that such a rule is discriminatory, or that it breaches their human rights, don’t panic. The Equality Act 2010 doesn’t protect individuals who have non-medical tattoos. Also, the tribunal will put the employer’s right to portray a professional image above an individual’s right to freedom of expression. However, do always check that there is no underlying religious or ethnic reason for a visible tattoo.

It’s perfectly legal to ban your employees from having visible tattoos (or insist they’re covered up) on the basis that a professional image must be projected at all times. Set out your rules in a dress and appearance policy and be consistent.


My motivation for writing this blog was not to explain Dress Code policies but was driven by me questioning whether or not all of us are too ready to reject otherwise excellent people based on our own inherent prejudices or excessive concern about what people will think. We are constantly told of the difficulty in recruiting for some sectors and professions (including Police officers) often with the explanation of how “the right people” are simply not available. I am NOT advocating a dropping of standards but do intend to review what MAY constitute being “right”. 

It is undoubtedly an emotive subject but perhaps we can all open our minds just a little and see where it leads.

Daniel Brunton