Is Firing an Employee for Tattoos Discrimination?

Tattoos Discrimination

Historically, tattoos were reserved for men in the military and people on the fringes of society. But since the 2000s, they have exploded in popularity. Today, tattoos are mainstream and no longer just associated with particular subcultures. Body art is a popular form of self-expression that can reflect personality traits, convey a sense of belonging within a particular group, or just change the way a person looks.

Employers must face the question of whether they can fire or refuse to hire a tattooed employee or require an employee to cover up tattoos. Whether you can fire an employee because of their tattoos will depend on your appearance and dress code policy, whether it is being enforced consistently, and whether the employee’s tattoos have religious significance.

In most cases, employers can adopt a “no visible tattoos” policy as part of grooming, appearance, and dress standards, as long as the policy is applied consistently and does not discriminate on the basis of protected grounds.

Employers May Adopt Reasonable Standards for Grooming, Appearance, and Dress

Ohio employers are permitted to adopt reasonable rules concerning employees’ dress, physical appearance, and grooming. The policy can address clothing, piercings, tattoos, makeup, hair, nails, and more.

Requiring employees to adhere to a specific dress code is legal as long as it does not discriminate along protected grounds. Protected grounds include:

  • Race, color, ancestry, or national origin
  • Religious creed
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Medical condition
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or gender expression
  • Age
  • Military status

Tattoos rarely fall into any of these protected categories.

Employee Grooming Standards Must Be Applied Consistently

To avoid claims of discrimination and wrongful termination, an employer must apply their anti-tattoo policy consistently. For example, it would be unlawful to allow one racial or ethnic group to display tattoos at work but prohibit members of another racial or ethnic from doing so.

It would also be illegal for an employer to allow certain kinds of tattoos but not others. An employer that allows tattoos depicting a random symbol but prohibits tattoos that express a person’s heritage would likely face claims of discrimination.

Religious Tattoos

Employers cannot discriminate on the basis of an employee’s religion. If an employee’s religion requires that they have certain tattoos, an employer likely must accommodate the employee’s tattoo, so long as the accommodation does not create an undue hardship for the employer.

Tattoos as Speech

Some people see their tattoos as a form of expression and believe that their right to display their tattoos is protected under the First Amendment. However, the First Amendment only protects people against government attempts to restrict expression. If the employer is in the private sector, the employee does not have protection under the First Amendment.

Covering Tattoos

Rather than adopt a policy that expressly forbids tattoos, many employers choose a policy that requires employees to cover tattoos while on the job. To support the policy, employers often claim that tattoos may offend certain customers.

As long as the policy is applied consistently and the employer can explain how an exemption would impose an undue burden on the employer, the policy will likely be upheld.

RKPT: Ohio Employment Lawyers

Employees have a right to express themselves, but their right to self-expression cannot come at their employer’s expense. Accordingly, most workplace policies that prohibit visible tattoos will be upheld as long as they are applied consistently and do not discriminate along protected grounds.

If you believe you were discriminated against because of your tattoos, or if you are an employer in need of assistance crafting a no visible tattoos policy, the employment and labor lawyers at RKPT can help. Contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your situation.