It's your skin, right? As long as you're an adult, no one can stop you from getting a tattoo. It's a right that stems from personal privacy and freedom of speech. Can you get fired over it, though?

A former Starbucks employee doesn't think so, and he may be right.

What Happened?

Benjamin Amos had his tattoos at the time he was hired by a Starbucks in the Dallas, Texas area. In fact, according to him, no one said anything about them for seven years or so as he worked his way up to shift manager. He even complied with the store's dress code and kept them covered by his clothing while working.

In February 2008, however, he was told by the store's manager that the Starbucks regional and district managers didn't like the tattoos. Apparently he was asked to resign, and when he refused, he was fired by his store manager.

Amos recently filed a lawsuit in a Texas federal district court claiming that he was fired in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

The Law

There are several federal laws making it illegal to discriminate against employees and potential employees. For instance, you can't be fired or treated differently by your employer because of your age or disability. And under Title VII, you can't be fired or treated differently because of your sex or gender, race, national origin, or religious beliefs.

Your employer is allowed, however, to have grooming and appearance rules for you and other workers. And the rules can be different for men and women workers so long as the rules don't discriminate on the basis of gender, race, or religion and have something to do with the job. For example, an employer may have a rule against long hair or beards for male employees, or one requiring women workers to wear dresses or skirts. It can't, however, make only women wear uniforms, or ban workers from wearing religious head or face coverings.

Personal Expression

Where do tattoos fit in? An employer probably can have a rule against tattoos if they're visible to the public if it has a reasonable belief tattoos hurt the company’s image or public relations. It seems Starbucks has some sort of policy requiring tattoos to be covered. That rule is probably reasonable, and regardless, Amos followed it.

The legal problem for Starbucks is Amos' claim about female workers with tattoos. According to him, some of his female co-workers have tattoos and they still have their jobs. Apparently, there are other female Starbucks employees who have tattoos, too. So, he may have a good argument that he was fired illegally because Starbucks is treating male and female workers differently and for no good business reason.

The counter-argument may be that female workers' tattoos are considered "less offensive" because they're flowers or more "cute." If that's Starbucks' argument it will have to explain exactly what's "offensive" and not, especially in light of Amos' effort to conceal his tattoos while working.

Jobs are hard to come by in today's economy. Stand up for your rights if you think you've been treated unfairly at work. If your employer has a human resources department, talk to some there about why you're being let go. Also, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). And, you can always talk to an attorney about your options.

The point is, it's up to you to do something about job discrimination. Don't be afraid to act.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Does it cost anything to file a complaint with the EEOC?
  • As an employer, how can I make sure my dress code and grooming rules don't violate state and federal discrimination laws?
  • My employer won't let me work on the loading dock because I'm a woman. Is that legal?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, Wrongful Termination, tatoo firing, tatoos termination