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The complicated situation of tattoos in the workplace (by Harry Law)

Tattoos are a form of expression that convey the individuality of their owners. They can represent a multitude of things, like a tie to a family member, a favorite quote with a special meaning, or even a favorite cartoon character. Tattoos also can carry great cultural and/or religious significance. Every tattoo is unique and says something about the individual person who wears it. The problem that many companies face is when a tattoo is considered appropriate and when it should be covered. 

Employees are after all the faces of a company, so the tattoos on their bodies are connected to and represent that company as well. Some workplaces have instituted rules and regulations when it comes to their employees’ tattoos, but there can be negative consequences when a company goes too far in telling their employees what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

The Disney Company has recently changed its policy on tattoos. Disney’s goal is to create a magical, fantasy experience for their guests and thus have maintained very strict rules for their cast members’ appearances. A change in their “Disney Look” guidebook has recently been made so that now, cast members are allowed to have tattoos up to a size that can be covered by their own extended hands. Besides, tattoos cannot have offensive material, nudity, foul language, etc. This has a major impact on HR practices concerning tattoos as Disney was previously one of the strictest companies. Such a change in Disney's rulebook was made to turn the company into a more inclusive place for its employees, as freedom of expression and acceptance of all have become a large and pressing issue in the last few years.

With the growing expectation of companies and employers to accept diversity, problems with tattoos have begun to come under fire and have even been the subject of some legal actions. There are state and federal laws that protect employees from being discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, national origin, and other protected areas. This means it could be illegal to fire someone with a tattoo that is connected to one of the above categories. Many people have tattoos relating to their religion or culture. 

Native Hawaiians, for example, will get tattoos because it is based deep within their culture and heritage. Unfortunately, these tattoos often fall into a gray area and are not always deemed as being of cultural or religious significance. Many Hawaiians who receive their tattoos will strategically get them in an area that can easily be covered. This is because they are still wrongfully discriminated against and/or face a negative stigma against what their ancestors have been practicing for thousands of years. Interestingly, Hawaiian Airlines requires all employees who have direct customer interaction to not have any tattoos visible. They do sometimes make exceptions for culturally Hawaiian tattoos, but it is not an issue that is taken lightly. Hawaiian Airlines executives believe that not displaying tattoos gives more of a professional appearance.

An estimated one-third of companies see no problem with their employees having visible tattoos. In a study done on nearly 200 restaurant managers in South Carolina, it was found that these managers preferred to hire servers without any visible tattoos. This has been an issue in the service industry especially because of the high amount of contact and interaction employees have with guests. Many managers and companies believe that visible tattoos are less professional-looking and are less preferable for customers to see. When employers are hiring, they are able to dismiss someone because of tattoos unless it can be proven that the tattoo is of religious or cultural importance. Even here, the rules for discriminating against these types of tattoos are unclear.

In an era where diversity and self-love have become increasingly important in our society, businesses are having a difficult time balancing what they think is right, what is best for their employees, and what is legal. There are still no laws that prevent discrimination against tattoos, but it has become a growing issue in human resources as more people push to not have to hide what has become a part of their own bodies. An increasing number of people have gotten tattoos, with an approximate 30% of Americans having at least one. With tattoo-related legal issues on the rise, HR departments must make a decision on where they stand with their employees showing their tattoos.

How does an employer differentiate from what is and isn’t an appropriate tattoo for the workplace?

Should a company be able to enforce what its employees have on their bodies?

When is a tattoo considered to be of cultural or religious importance? What qualities must it have?

About The Author

Harry Law is currently a junior at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. His major is Hospitality Management, and he is a student at the Collins College of Hospitality Management. He is taking an emphasis on his degree in Lodging Operations and would like to pursue a career at a hotel/resort. He recently was accepted into the Disney College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, and will be working on the program full time for six months, beginning in January of 2022. He is excited about the opportunities it will bring him, as he will receive a vast amount of new knowledge and experience in the service industry.


Brallier, S., and K. Maguire. “Visible Tattoos and Employment in the Restaurant Service Industry: Semantic Scholar.” Semantic Scholar, 2011,

“Tattoos in the Workplace: What Employers Care About.” ASVAB Career Exploration Program,

Teramae, Lana, et al. “Tattoos in the Workplace Are an Evolving Issue in Hawai'i.” Hawaii Business Magazine, 15 Oct. 2021,

Wilkie, Dana. “What Are an Applicant's Tattoos Telling Potential Employers?” SHRM, 16 Aug. 2019, relations/pages/tattoos-at-work.aspx.

Picture source:


  1. Joshlind Hege HRT 3500 Section 1

    I'm surprised to learn that tattoos are becoming a matter of discussion and even acceptance in the workplace. Typically, because of the negative stigma associated with tattoos, anyone with a tattoo on their body visible to the public was automatically denied a job opportunity. I think it is past time to reconsider discriminating against people who have tattoos, especially when permanent body art has been used to keep people connected to their cultural and spiritual roots since ancient times. The idea that tattoos are not professional, like the claim that dreadlocks are unprofessional is, in my opinion, a matter of preference. According to Title VII, someone should not be discriminated on based on cultural or spiritual practices. To avoid discrimination claims in the future, I think HR will have to assess if "appearing professional" is a business necessity or a Bona fide occupational qualification.

  2. Adrian Laksmono HRT 3500 Section 2

    Tattoos have become a topic of conversation in the workplace for a while now. An employer may have a policy against/for tattoos in the workplace with the guests/customers in mind. As an employee, you choose to work at a specific place; therefore, you should abide by their policies. If you don't like their rules, most suggest finding another place to work. However, if the employee is a hard worker, they should be able to look past what's on the body and see their value. Especially if the tattoo is of religious or cultural significance, companies should be able to adapt and consider special circumstances or even offer clothing like sleeves to help cover at no extra costs to the employee.

  3. Chuong Nguyen, HRT 3500-02

    I feel like work cultures around the world need to be having this conversation and should have began it long ago. As younger people join the workforce, there will be more and more people with tattoos and both non-contact and contact jobs where they directly serve the customer. I certainly think there is an ongoing process of destigmatization of tattoos and body art that has mostly been initiated by young people. I believe companies will continue to move towards a more inclusive work culture where cultural and religious body art will be accepted, but at the end of the day, it is up to the business operator whether they want to take on these individuals. However, I personally see no benefit for a manager to turn down a hard-working and proven employee just because they have ink on their body.

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  5. Monique Navares, HRT 3500.01April 24, 2022 at 9:23 PM

    There is currently no employment regulation in the United States that prohibits discrimination in the job or in the hiring process because of visible tattoos. The stigma around tattoos is that previously any visible ink was associated with a harsh or tough demeanor. The stereotyping of inked professionals as being unintelligent, vulnerable to drug use, dishonest, and unreliable, caused them to be employed less and those with no tattoos. A tattoo is used as a means of expressing yourself. No company should refuse to hire you because of your tattoos. You should never be judged solely on the basis of your appearance.


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