People & Human Resources

Employee ink: Is it time to update the company dress policy?

Sue-Ellen Watts /

Recently returning from New York I unintentionally started a workplace discussion that has got us thinking about employee dress policies!

The conversation was, “What do you do if one of your team come back from their holidays flaunting a rather obvious tattoo?”

Well that team member was me, the founder and chief executive, and while my team loved my new addition, they didn’t waste any time making jokes about whether it aligned to our company dress policy! Luckily for me, we have a policy of professionalism at all times without restricting self expression, but that’s not consistent across all Australian businesses.

With one in five Australian’s sporting a tattoo these days, it’s not unlikely that you’ve either hired, interviewed or are currently working with someone who is inked up.

Looking back on presentation and grooming policies that we’ve written and implemented in the past, there are often restrictions imposed on displaying visible tattoos. But as our workforce demographic starts to shift, so does the idea of personal self-expression. We know that our millennials are more inclined to choose a more relaxed style of dress for work or perhaps one that better suits their uniqueness.

But it’s not just millennials getting tattoos and is no longer a youthful rebellion — over a third of Australians got the first tattoo after the age of 26 and another 20% were in their mid 30s or older.

So what doesn’t this mean for employers? As with everything HR related, there are precedents and legislation that guide some dos and don’ts when it comes to enforcing your policies around tattoo visibility that employers should consider such as:

  • Treating someone unfavourably because of their tattoos being linked to a certain religion, race or belief;
  • Whether the ink could be considered offensive or obscene by a “reasonable” person; and
  • The nature of the work the employee does (for example, do they have direct contact with clients and customers?).

In this day and age, I think the question is less around prohibitive factors in asking employees to conceal tattoos and more about why does it even matter? How much focus should we really be placing on tattoos in the workplace?

As we talk more about diversity in the workplace, it is as much about personal expression as it is about gender, age and sexuality. Tattoos often tell an intriguing story and give an insight into the intricacies of someone’s history — what an amazing way to connect with someone (whether it’s your team or your customers!).

It’s necessary to have a balanced approach on the topic of tattoos in the workplace and make strong consideration about what you favour more — your overall corporate image or the quality of the employees you hire and retain based on their body art. Be careful not to miss out on top talent because you’re taking a conservative approach to you grooming and presentation policy!

Lucky for me I am free to share my new ink, and as a result have engaged in many really interesting conversations with clients, colleagues and contacts.

This blog was written by Sue-Ellen Watts and Katie Hamilton.

Sue-Ellen Watts is the Founder of national HR Consulting firm wattsnext and Katie Hamilton is the New South Wales state manager. Sue-Ellen, Katie and the wattsnext team of professionals are enablers of business growth through relevant HR for the modern world. 

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Sue-Ellen Watts

Sue-Ellen Watts is the founder of wattsnext, specialists delivering relevant HR for the modern world to SMEs across the globe.

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