Career

Tattoos At Work: What You Need To Know

As tattoos slowly lose their past stigmas, more and more Australians have some degree of ink. Recent stats suggest up to one in five of us have at least one tattoo. However, that still doesn’t make them totally acceptable, especially when it comes to the workplace.

“Tattoos still carry a historical hangover of being seen as subversive and anti-establishment, which means they can have negative connotations for employers,” says Associate Professor Kathleen Riach from Monash Business School. Associate Professor Riach is an expert in social and cultural issue at work, and specialises in how bodies are perceived in the workplace.

So if you’re inked and heading into the workplace, here’s what you need to know. 

Tattoos aren’t covered by workplace discrimination laws

Workplace discrimination provisions are in place to ensure that people have ways to appeal dismissal, unfair treatment or harassment based on certain characteristics. Tattoos, which fall under the realm of physical appearance, is not one of these characteristics.

Unless your tattoo can fall under racial discrimination, there is no legal framework available to protect you from losing a job.

“In Australia, physical appearance is not a ‘protected characteristic’ – something that is enshrined in anti-discrimination law (like gender, age, disability or ethnicity),” says Riach.

While tattoos in and of themselves aren’t protected, discrimination based on tattoos that are inherently linked to one’s ethnic identity may qualify as racial discrimination. For example, a person who identifies as Maori may be able to seek protection under racial discrimination laws if they are discriminated against based on their tattoos, which are inherently linked to their ethnic identity. But that’s as far as discrimination protection goes.

So unless your tattoo can fall under racial discrimination, there is no legal framework available to protect you from losing a job or losing out on a job because of a tattoo.

You can be fired for a tattoo

Well, kind of. While most tattoos don’t fall into anti-discrimination measures, the legality of firing employees for unwanted ink is still a bit of a grey area. Because of this, Riach suggests that employers are likely to take alternative routes if they discover any unwanted tattoos.

“The chances are if employers found out you had a tattoo that they didn’t like, they are more likely to find another more justifiable excuse for your dismissal,” she says. “Others might choose not to employ you in the first place if they are aware of the tattoo during recruitment and deem it a problem.”

So while tattoos are slowly becoming more acceptable, it’s still very much in your best interest to be aware that they may compromise your place in certain industries. Do also remember that a lot can depend on the position of the tattoo – if it’s not visible when you’re in your work outfit, it may not be a problem.

Working with tattoos

With all this in mind, the conditions for inked workers may look pretty damning. But there are ways to navigate the workplace if you’ve got some ink. Riach says your treatment is highly dependent on the industry you’re entering.

“Young people now change their career trajectory on average four times during their lives, so where you start your career is not likely where you end up.”

“Working in an industry which sees itself as cool and contemporary might be more open to tattoos than traditional customer-facing roles for example – in fact, in some workplaces I’ve researched, it almost feels like tattoos and an edgy haircut are part of the corporate uniform!” says Riach. This consideration could also apply to positions in more edgy or contemporary companies despite them existing in more conservative industries.

She also suggests that a prolonged period of strong work may be enough to ease any initial doubts about tattoos your employer may have.

“Having the opportunity for [employers] to see your talent through your actions (rather than judge you on your looks) can offset any negative perceptions they hold about your tattoos,” she says.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer but, despite the legal situation, it’s possible to enjoy a long, fulfilling career while being inked.

To those considering ink

If you’re considering tattoos now or in the future, Riach says to keep in mind career paths aren’t as straight and narrow as they once were, so you may run into a whole host of industries and workplace cultures.

“Remember that young people now change their career trajectory on average four times during their lives, so where you start your career is not likely where you end up,” she says. “However, at the same time, to fully dictate what we choose to do with our bodies around what an industry or workplace demands can be so restrictive – for many, tattoos are an important source of self-expression.”

In the end, deciding whether or not to get tattoos is all about balancing how you wish to express yourself, against the values of the employers you wish to work for.

“In 2018, it is increasingly important to have the ‘right look’ in whatever career we choose, and that look is about us complimenting the culture or brand of the company,” Riach says. “If tattoos are one way of that you define who you are, then perhaps you feel you would rather choose to work for an employer who recognises and values that person, ink and all.”

If you’re thinking of getting inked, find out more about the impact of tattoos on your career.


Kim is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her work has been featured in Junkee, Archer Magazine, Global Hobo and more. She’s also a regular contributor over at neutral.love, which works to break down stigmas surrounding sex and relationships. When she’s not writing, she’s sitting at home bullet journalling. You can tweet at her @mirroreyedgazer.