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Legal to Fire Over Tattoos, Piercings?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

From shoulder wings to plugs, tattoos and piercings are quite the rage. But is it legal to fire people for having tattoos or piercings?

Despite their growing popularity, if you aren't a fan of your employee's alternative forms of self-expression, you can ask him or her to cover them up. If that doesn't work, then you may be able to legally fire a tattooed or pierced worker in particular situations.

Job discrimination based on appearance is a reality for those with tats or piercings, but there are certain circumstances when it could be against the law.

Employee Appearance Codes

In most cases, private employers are within their legal rights to implement and enforce grooming, dress and appearance codes for their companies. Generally, an employer can have a rule against tattoos if they're visible to the public and the employer has a reasonable belief that tattoos hurt the company's image or public relations.

Though there's legal ambiguity over what exactly "offensive" means, the vast majority of appearance-based discrimination court cases side with the employer.

However, these cases get tricky when the tattoo or piercing discrimination is mixed with a legally recognized form of discrimination like religion, gender, race, ethnicity, age or disability.

For example, in the case Cloutier vs. Costco Wholesale, the court agreed with Ms. Cloutier that her piercings and tattoos were part of her religion. But she eventually lost the case, because an appeals court held that Costco couldn't accomodate her without undue hardship.

Questions for Employers to Consider

As with most situations involving religious beliefs, if a tattoo or piercing is for religious reasons, an employee must be accommodated as long as this does not cause an undue hardship to the employer.

So before you fire that guy with the intense Gaia tattoo, keep these considerations in mind:

  • Does the tattoo hurt your company's image or public relations?
  • Does the tattoo present health or safety risks?
  • Is the tattoo easy to cover up?
  • If the tattoo or piercing is tied to religion, can you make a reasonable accommodation (i.e., does it present an undue burden for your business)?

These rules can get complex, so you may want to consult an experienced employment law attorney before you make a blanket refusal of an employee's tattoo or piercing accommodation request.

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