Workplace Policies on Tattoos

Chris Dalzell has tattoos all over his body with more to come. He wants his entire body covered in tattoos. (Photo courtesy Chris Dalzell)


With a forehead of flames above blacked-out eyelids and candy skull teeth lining his lips, Chris Dalzell fuels his tattoo addiction by covering every bit of natural skin on his body.

That addiction, however, has had a negative impact on his employment since he began heavily tattooing his face.

Since he started two years ago, the 32-year-old chef from Bangor, Ireland says he has been excluded from work gatherings, Christmas parties, and is barred from leaving the back kitchen for a drink of water at the bar.

“I didn’t consider how people would perceive me or how it would affect any job I had,” Dalzell said. “As far as work is concerned, my tattoos are a major issue. It’s something I should have sat down and thought more about beforehand. But when I was in that situation it wasn’t something that crossed my mind.”

The ink on your skin is more problematic in the work environment than people think.

Laws are in place to protect people from discrimination, but still, people’s appearance can get policed in the workplace.

Ironically, Dalzell’s tattoos were not designed to intimidate, but to cause him as much pain as possible.

His two-year-old daughter has been in and out of hospitals since she was born due to birth complications, and the only way he copes with the heartache is by inflicting more pain onto himself through tattooing.

After facing discrimination for his face tattoos at his current workplace, Dalzell plans to leave the restaurant, but finding work is not easy.

He honestly admits in his CV that he is covered in tattoos on his body and face when potential employers call to ask for an interview, he reiterates this in anticipation of them missing that bottom note.

“The conversation changes from ‘come in to do a trial’ to ‘we have more candidates so don’t come in and we will get back to you,’” Dalzell said.

(Photo courtesy Chris Dalzell)

For an employee like Dalzell who faces discrimination during the hiring process, “It is very difficult to prove there was any kind of damages or losses they’ve had relating to tattoos,” said Kathy Chittley-Young.

As an employment lawyer of almost 19 years, she currently operates out of her own firm, KCY at Law, in Burlington, Ont.

Part of her job involves helping employees and employers with the issue of displaying tattoos in the workplace.

In Canada, not many cases of tattoo-based discrimination make it to courts, Chittley-Young explains. With the few cases available, though, lawyers can provide enough guidance to employers to respond adequately to dress code regulations without being too restrictive from a court’s perspective.

“If someone works a retail position doing a front-facing job that would display their tattoos, I would advise employers that the store’s targeted audience of young adults would be more tolerant of tattoos,” Chittley-Young said.

“Contrast that with a high-end jewelry shop with clientele above 40 years of age who would be offended or uncomfortable by tattoos. I would advise them of their right to request employees to be covered during work hours.”

When a person with tattoos comes to her for advice, she asks: who do they work for, where do they work, what are the times they work, who are they working with, if there is any known policy they are aware of, and to see their employment agreement for any prohibition of tattoos at the date of hire.

These factors inform her response to employees who have tattoos or consider getting tattoos to avoid any interpretation of discrimination.

Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work or STAPAW, is a North American-based advocacy organization for body modifications that works to help companies change their policies and dress code regulations to be more open-minded and inclusive.

“I think a lot of advocacy groups have an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality,” said STAPAW director Nathan Madden. “For STAPAW, there’s no ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ There’s just misunderstandings. When we can right those misunderstandings, companies are willing to change their hiring or dress code policies.”

STAPAW originated as a Facebook page to help one woman in Kansas get her job back as a manager after being fired over two complaints regarding her tattoos. The success of her case spearheaded the formation of an advocacy organization.

Their goal is not to instate legislation. “Once legislation forces people to hire someone with tattoos, it goes against what we stand for. We’re saying hiring shouldn’t be based on what somebody looks like. It should be based on their merit,” Madden said.

Adjusting to the idea of tattoos in the workplace is the next step to eliminate discrimination.

“The law takes a long time to catch up to what the norm is, but by the time it does, there’s a new norm,” Chittley-Young said.

Employers are not keen to hire someone with blacked-out eyelids or a face that resembles a skull, as is the case with Dalzell’s tattoos. This is why workplace policies should strive for more inclusiveness.

“Our goal is to change stereotypes,” Madden said. “You don’t change stereotypes by twisting arms. You do it by changing hearts and minds.”

As for Dalzell, he said his ability to work is not determined by the tattoos on his skin. “At the end of the day, my tattoos don’t do the cooking. My hands do the cooking.”

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