Tatt-do or Tatt-don’t? Whether or not to show your ink at the office.

tattoos at work

Tattoos at work: I’m often asked for my opinion on visible tattoos in the workplace: to show or not to show?

With a growing number of people getting inked, tattoos are becoming an increasingly mainstream fashion statement.

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Hell, even I have a couple (albeit teeny ones) – a single bar of music on my back, and a compass on my right inner forearm. And like many who have been initiated with ink I even have stories behind them – the first was a bar from the first ‘big’ piece I learned on cello (yep, I’m a nerd to the core) that I got done as part of a sisterly pact when she got a beautiful butterfly, and it’s one of our favourite memories to smile about together. The second was undertaken on a recent life-changing holiday that I will brag about at a different time.

But back to the question at hand (or arm, back, leg or any other number of areas you may be inked) – is it ok to show off your art-work at the office?

Let’s break it down a bit:

distinct laws governing the visibility of tattoos (amongst other forms of body modification) don’t currently exist

Legally speaking

The answer is … not always clear. You see, employers do generally have the right to set what they see as reasonable policies in relation to dress guidelines within the workplace, including visible tattoos, piercings and other body modifications. And distinct laws governing the visibility of tattoos (amongst other forms of body modification) don’t currently exist.

However, discrimination laws do exist across all states and territories of Australia to protect us from being marginalised and discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, religion, cultural identification etc. So what does this all mean?

On their website, The Australian Human Rights Commission states “Employers will sometimes set rules regarding the appearance of their employees in the workplace. However, it is important to ensure that any proposed rules that affect people with tattoos do not amount to discrimination.

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Discrimination is against the law when people are treated unfairly because of a personal attribute that is protected by law, including race, sex and gender identity. Discrimination can happen when employers put in place conditions or requirements which appear to treat everyone the same but which actually disadvantage some people because of a personal attribute they share. If the requirement is not reasonable in the circumstances, it could be discrimination.

Example: An employer had a policy to refuse to hire any workers with visible tattoos, even for roles that involved no customer contact. A Maori job applicant who had a tattoo for reasons connected to his ethnic origin was not hired because of his tattoo. This could be racial discrimination.”

Fashionably speaking

Well, like with most questions about fashion there’s no one definite answer here either (apart from don’t poodle-perm your fringe – Mum was right). But as with most advice in relation to workplace attire and presentation, I usually stick with the old ‘dress for the job you want’ guidelines.

In plain speak, this means dressing to suitably impress within your cohort – neat and tidy, with a funky flair is my personal go-to. Now, in terms of flashing your ink, as with any visible accessories you may be wearing, one of the main things to consider here is the content and location. In the same way that some slogans can be viewed as offensive on clothing, some inked content may also have that potential and it is important for you to consider this in relation to the bigger-picture. My advice is that if you wouldn’t wear it on a t-shirt to work, don’t wear it on visible skin there either – keep it for the weekend and flash your tatts then. And as for location, if it’s not a body-part typically displayed at work, keep it covered!

Individuality speaking

“But why should I have to give up my rights to individuality and just conform?” I hear you ask. Well, firstly, if your ‘individuality’ relies solely on your ink-art being visible I’d say you’ve got some bigger issues to work through.

Secondly, all of us – every single day in fact, conform in various ways and to varying degrees without question, simply to remain engaged with our cohort. Think sport uniforms, dressing up when going out for dinner (well, for really special occasions), and, well – wearing clothes in general. In none of these scenarios, despite conforming to general expectations, have you comprised your individuality. You’re still YOU.

Sure, tattoos form part of our self-expression, but we certainly shouldn’t be reducing ourselves down to just some strategic inking should we? Or to put it another way, we all have an infinite number of versions of ourselves, that we show in different contexts. To demonstrate this point, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the version of yourself that you present to your grandma is likely to be different to the version you show to your mates at the pub – in both scenarios you are still the wonderful you, but you have shown the version of you that matches the situation most appropriately. We’re pretty clever beings like that!

With the increasing popularity of this art-form, there is an ever-widening acceptance and curiosity in the wider community and a growing number of workplaces in which visible ink is celebrated. I’m a huge fan of both diversity and educated choices.

So my overall advice is pretty simple: think before you ink, and dress to impress for the job you want – regardless of whether you plan to show a little tattoo or not at work.

Lauren Maxwell is a passionate Women’s Career Developer and Rehabilitation Counsellor. She is the founder of Headstrong Women, and thrives on innovation and creativity to empower women to clarify their goals and reach their potential.