Can your employer fire you because you have tattoos? Or make you cover them up while at work? The answers depend on your employer’s grooming and dress code policies, whether your employer enforces those policies consistently, and whether your tattoos have religious significance.
Employer Dress Code & Grooming Policies
Employers are free to adopt dress codes and grooming requirements that reflect their company culture or promote a particular brand or look. For example, a law firm might require employees to dress in formal business attire, a restaurant might require servers to wear black pants and white button-down shirts, and a retailer might require employees to wear uniforms bearing the company logo. (For more on dress code and grooming policies, see Your Work-Related Appearance: What Are Your Rights?)
Some employers also have policies about employee tattoos. For example, an employer might require employees to cover visible tattoos while working with customers or clients. Like prohibiting employees from wearing t-shirts or requiring employees to wear a uniform, an appearance policy requiring employees to cover tattoos is legal unless it violates laws prohibiting discrimination.
Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from making job decisions based on protected characteristics, including race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Other federal laws prohibit discrimination based on disability, age (40 and older), and genetic information. And, many state laws protect additional characteristics, such as marital status, sexual orientation, and more.
An appearance or grooming policy can be illegal if it is applied in a discriminatory manner. For example, if an employer only requires employees to cover tattoos that include Spanish because it believes they might be seen as gang-related, that would be discrimination based on national origin.
An employer that enforces its policies inconsistently might also be discriminating. In a case involving Starbucks, for example, an employee was fired because his tattoos violated company policy. However, the male employee claimed that his female coworkers with tattoos were not fired and that he was being discriminated against due to his gender. If the decision to fire him was based on his gender, that would be discrimination.
Employees who have been fired because of their tattoos or asked to cover them at work have also brought claims of religious discrimination. For example, a restaurant server who was fired for refusing to cover his tattoos while at work sued his employer for religious discrimination, claiming that his tattoos had religious significance and that covering them was a sin according to his beliefs. As long as the tattoo is part of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, the employer must accommodate the employee, unless it would cause undue hardship. (For more on this topic, see our article on religious discrimination in employment.)
Freedom of Speech
Because many people see their tattoos as a form of personal speech, they believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects their right to display their tattoos. However, the First Amendment protects against government efforts to stifle speech, not the efforts of private actors (such as employers in the private sector). Therefore, this argument doesn’t carry weight against private employers.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can my employer fire me for having tattoo “sleeves,” even if I cover them at work?
- My employer doesn’t require employees to cover small tattoos, which means mostly women are allowed to have tattoos. Is this legal?
- What should I do if my employer fires me because I have tattoos?